Rev. Katheryn Barlow-Williams
Please Read: Psalm 25:1-10 and Luke 10:25-37
Greetings from Oak Hills Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas. It is an honor to be here. I want to thank Rev. Herr and his staff for opening the pulpit to me today. More than 25 years ago, I stumbled upon the doors of this church for the first time. I had come to France to work as an Au Pair while I attended school, and had only been here a couple of weeks. I have to confess, I came mostly for the chance to speak English and to grab a free cup of coffee. I entered the reception area obviously lost, and a woman stopped to ask if I needed help. When I told her I was looking for the young adult Sunday school class, she said, "oh follow me, I am going that way." As I followed her up the steps she introduced herself as Ann Jahnes, the associate pastor. She said it just like that. As if it was a simply a matter of fact. As if it was not just the most shocking, scandalous, and stunning secret a woman could utter in the church.
My mind was on overload, unable to process the information because I was raised in a denomination that fiercely believed women who wanted to be pastors were at best misguided in their prayer life, and at worst the work of the devil. As I followed Ann up the stairs I felt this sort of strange implosion begin within me. When a building is imploded, it is destroyed from the inside out so that surrounding structures are not damaged. And it was happening to the foundation of my religious training at that very moment. Cracks began to shatter beliefs once held concretely in my mind, and a whole new world of possibility emerged. Ultimately those steps up the stairs lead to 25 years of ministry in the Presbyterian Church USA. I have no doubt that God is still at work in our world today transforming ordinary things like coffee cups and greetings into sacred gifts of new life. I want to thank Ann, the Grahmns, and this congregation for being here for me when I needed a home away from home so many years ago.
In today's scripture lesson, Jesus tells a story that ignites a grace implosion in some folks and a fear explosion in others. Just about everyone has heard the story of the good Samaritan. On his way to Jerusalem Jesus, stops to teach people about love and the true meaning of life. But there is a lawyer in the crowd who of wants legal clarification. A rather combative exchange ensues. The lawyer ask Jesus, "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "What is written in the law?" The lawyer 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."
Jesus replied, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."
Lawyer still not satisfied asked, "And who is my neighbor?"
Author and theologian, Frederick Buechner explains, The lawyer presumably wanted something on the order of: "A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one's own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever."
But Jesus doesn't give a legal answer. He tells a story that shatters long held beliefs about who is acceptable and who is not. A man 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. First a Priest walked by the wounded man, and then a Levite. They passed to the other side and did nothing to help. Samaritan: But it is a Samaritan who is so moved with compassion, he takes the injured man to an inn, pays the bill and promises to come back if more is needed.
This could have been such a nice, comfortable illustration about how to treat people in need, if Jesus had just left out the detail that the helper was a Samaritan. Jewish people HATED SAMARITANS AND THE FEELING WAS MUTUAL. Long standing hostility between the two cultures. It was as if Jesus just wanted to shock the crowd that day. Maybe he was trying to create at least a few grace implosions where old beliefs shattered to unleash a more expansive understanding of God's love. Of course, it had the opposite effect on some folks. When they heard Jesus talk about a Samaritan, they exploded with rage and fear.
A Big gulp and gasp rippled through the crowd that day for sure. But Jesus was used to that. The woman at the well; the woman who wept at his feet; eating with Zacchaeus the tax collector; healing on the sabbath; blessing the children on his knee, the woman caught in adultery, touching a leper; It was just all so shocking, scandalous and stunning! People walked away from those moments imploding with Grace, an old life crumbling away so a new one could be built---or exploding with rage refusing to change. Granted kingdom work can be slow going. Only time can tell if someone will fill the cracks of grace with fear and hate, or let love open them wide with possibility and hope.
Jesus, who spent his ministry on the road, he knew that traveling makes us vulnerable and perhaps more open to broadening our understanding of neighbors. He uses this story about travelers to redefine the meaning of neighbors. The one thing the characters all have in common is that they are on a journey far from home. It doesn't take a gang of robbers to strip us of our identities or the superficial divisions that we construct around us. Traveling pushes us out of our comfort zones. Away from our friends and family, we are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers and dig deep within ourselves to find strength we did not know we had. The story of the Good Samaritan and our own travels remind us that we don't have to know someone for a life-time to make a profound and lasting connection.
I have a dear friend who lives in Tennessee now. Not too long ago, she posted a story on Facebook about traveling with her 12-year-old son, Parker, to Chicago. Parker is on the autism spectrum and Carolyn was forced to rely on the healing hands of complete strangers to get home. Carolyn's story: "I’m sitting in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport at “Chilies” and the Cubs are on TV. My son belts out his loudest rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball game” and offers an enthusiastic, “1-2-3 strikes your out!” as he knocks over his chair. If he were 4, it might be cute, but he’s 12, so it’s a little weird. Those around us smile politely and continue eating. Because our culture is accustomed to the elderly, those in wheelchairs, and those with Down’s Syndrome we know how to respond appropriately. But because children on the autistic spectrum often look typical, we expect them to behave in a like manner…..but sometimes, they don’t.
We settle ourselves at Gate 14 preparing to wait out our remaining 1 ½ hour layover. Parker is happy with “Getting Strong with The Wiggles” dvd and I quickly check my email. 10 minutes later there is a gate change announcement and our uneventful trip becomes live entertainment for all Concourse G passengers. I sense Parker’s agitation at the request to move, but manage to make about 30 feet before he flops on the floor and proceeds to kick, scream, and spit at anyone in the vicinity. I work him into a full restraint position and survey the crowd and available equipment to plan my next move. A man with a clue simply asks, “Do you need my help?” to which I respond, “Yes!” He dodges the flailing limbs coming his way and boldly helps me lift my 90 pound son into a nearby wheelchair. He thinks this is cool, so he buckles himself in and we are able to proceed. I say “Thank you,” to helper #1 and move on. We kill as much time as we can wheeling up and down the concourse. We play through every Sesame Street and Superhero theme song on my iphone until I have only a sliver of red left on my battery, but it’s ok because we will be boarding any minute. Then we learn that our plane will be delayed because which sends Parker over the edge.
Now in full blown tantrum mode, helper #2 arrives and I ask for assistance in restraining him while I fumble around and insert the dissolvable “chill pill” into his mouth. Parker in return, spits it out all over helper #2, who miraculously, doesn’t even flinch. I apologize, and when helper #3 shows up, we try again. He has wiggled himself out of the chair and onto the floor, so again, I assume a full-restraint position in the middle of the corridor with my purse and my backpack strewn in opposite directions. From here, I lose count of those that come to help. There is the man who offers comfort with his therapy dog, or the lady who quietly puts a pillow under his thrashing head. And then of course, there is the lady who feels it is a good time to tell me about her advanced degrees and qualifications with autistic children, and another one who gets in my face to ask, “What’s wrong with him? Is he sick?” “Moron!!!” I say to no one in particular.
As the medication begins to take effect, and I am able to comb through my disheveled hair and wipe the tears off my face, I see a young man standing nearby who introduces himself as, “P.J.” He simply says that he is on my flight and will be glad to help if I need him. I do…desperately. P.J. and I help Parker to his feet and together we three begin the 80 yard walk to the gate. With eyes focused on “MEMPHIS: NOW BOARDING,” I hear voices from passengers on both sides, “Keep going!” “ Hang in there!” “You’re a good mom!” and the like. When we get to the gate, everyone else has boarded, and I am informed that they are holding the plane to determine if Parker poses a safety threat. I tell them I have given him medication and that he will fall asleep shortly. “What did you give him?” they ask, and document my response. Next there are multiple phone calls, and conversations with airport personnel regarding safety of passengers, and consultations with the FAA in Dallas to determine the effects of the medication and if “in the event of an emergency, would the child be able to function?” Meanwhile, PJ continues to engage Parker by talking about spaghetti, and dogs, and anything else that will prove he is not in a catatonic state. A man resembling Santa Claus appears and holds out his arms. As if I’d known him forever, I fall into his arms and burst into tears. He says, “I have been watching you, and you’re doing a good job.” It is enough encouragement to keep me going. I apologize to the gate agent for holding up the plane and causing others to miss connections. I offer to catch a flight the following day. With compassion she replies, “You are not holding up this plane. I am!”
After a significant period of time, we are permitted to board. I scan the attentive crowd for the Santa Claus guy, but cannot find him. It has been one heck of a show for Concourse G, and as a result, they are all probably behind on their reading and texting. I am exhausted, but not angry, as I frequently am after such an ordeal. Instead I am overcome with gratitude to those who have taken a risk to reach out and help. It has been said that kindness, like a boomerang, always returns. As you travel this summer, consider being helper #1, or #2, the unglamorous #24, or even a PJ to someone in need….just don’t be a moron.
If you ask me, that just might be what Jesus was trying to say in his scandalous, shocking, and stunning story of the Good Samaritan. Don't be a moron. Consider being helper 1, 2 or unglamorous 24 or even a PJ. -----be an agent of grace who appears with bandages and pillows and compassion and love to help the wounded. Be the one who arrives to reveal divine hope and possibility to those who have been battered and wounded by life. But do not be a moron blabbering about how much you know or asking stupid questions when someone desperately needs help.
After Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, he asked the lawyer, "Who is the neighbor?" The lawyer had to concede: "The one who showed compassion" "Go and do likewise," Jesus said.
My friends, may God's grace implode our hearts and fill them with such love that we can "go and do likewise." Martin Luther King once said, "Faith is taking the first step even when you don't see the whole staircase." Twenty-seven years ago when I stumbled up the steps of this church behind Ann Jahnes, I could not see what I can now. The view from here is amazing and you will always hold a special place in my heart. Thank you for being God's neighbor to me, and to the thousands of other travelers who have entered your doors. May God bless you today and always as we continue to seek to follow Christ's command: "go and do likewise."