The Essence of Kindness: A Sermon

The Essence of Kindness
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
July 15, 2013
Rev. Julie Emery

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Text: Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 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.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 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. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 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. 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.” Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

The lawyer said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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Our scripture passage for this morning is perhaps the most well-known parable in all of Christendom. We teach it to even the youngest of Sunday School Classes. The “Good Samaritan” moniker is given by the press to any and all who might go out of their way to help another in need. We know this story: a reminder of the essence of kindness, the basics of Christian good deeds. And so it’s place in the lectionary, here in the middle of summer vacation, seems like a quaint reminder, of the practice we should continue to be mindful of even in these long, leisurely days.

The story begins with the common banter and debate between rabbis and learned Jewish men. The lawyer asks a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus turns the question back to him: “What does the law tell you?” The lawyer’s response shows that he knows the answer to the question he asks, and recites it readily and easily. “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 commends him on his correct answer, “Do this and you shall live,” he says.

And then comes the deeper question. We hear that the lawyer wants to justify himself, he is looking for the parameters of the definition of “neighbor.” “But who is my neighbor?” he asks. Is it a family member? Someone of my own tribe or age demographic? Perhaps it is someone from my town or my country? Someone from my own race or ethnicity? Perhaps it is merely a person with whom I share a property line?

We see ourselves in this lawyer, don’t we? …In the ways we mark the boundaries of our own faithfulness, the ways we limit God’s call upon our hearts and lives.

The parable that Jesus tells in response to the lawyer’s request for boundaries is one we could recite from memory: a man on the road to Jericho: robbed, beaten, left for dead. Three men that pass by. Only one who stops. We know what it means: look for people to help, even those who are the “other,” even those whom you might hate. Be the Good Samaritan.

Perhaps one such Good Samaritan is Lisa Fenn who was a producer for ESPN back in 2009 when she first met Leroy Sutton and Dartanyan Crockett. She had gone to Cleveland, Ohio, to Lincoln High School to do an inspirational piece on these two teenage boys, both wrestlers, both with severe hardships. Leroy Sutton had lost both his legs in a horrible train accident when he was 11, by that time his father was no longer around, and after his accident his mother slipped into a life riddled with addiction and guilt. Dartanyan Crockett was Leroy’s best friend. A star athlete in wrestling, Dartanyan was legally blind from an illness at birth, and had lost his mother to a fatal aneurysm when he was 8, since then he had been homeless, crashing on friend’s couches and scavenging for food.

The two boys had become like bothers, Dartanyan carrying Leroy around their high school, and to wrestling matches, Leroy keeping them both laughing with his wit and smile. Leroy without legs, Dartanyan without sight, they were unlikely brothers, one completing the other, bonded for life.

Perhaps it was the nature of the story: producing a story about friendship required relationship building Lisa Fenn had not experienced before. Perhaps it was because it was Cleveland, the town that she had grown up in, on the other, wealthier, whiter, side of the tracks. Perhaps it was just because she was willing and able, but Fenn was drawn in by these two boys – their seemingly limitless need and their boundless determination. When the original story aired in 2009, both had graduated from high school, but neither had money for college. Their future was uncertain, and bleak.

The ESPN piece generated interest, compassion. Soon Fenn assisted in setting up trust funds for the boys, with money donated by viewers who wanted to help. But it turned out that money wasn’t the only thing they needed. They needed hand holding, transcripts and recommendations, applications and college visits. They needed doctors and dentists, social security cards and more paperwork. Lisa Fenn became that person. The one who stepped in when everyone else had let them down. The one who would not be another person to break their trust and walk away.

At first, Leroy would rather be damned than take help from Fenn. Who was she, when so many others in his life had walked away, left him with nothing. As Fenn showed him she wasn’t going away, he warmed to her. With Fenn’s help, Leroy went to a college in Arizona to study video game design. When his girlfriend got pregnant and it looked like it was all over, Leroy became a committed and dedicated father, something he had never had in his own life.

Dartanyan, with Fenn’s help, got an opportunity to train to become an athlete in the para-olympics in Judo. He was welcomed into residence at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs to learn the sport and compete. It was the first time he had ever had a consistent place to live in his life, it was his first bed. With his natural ability and determination, Dartanyan won a seat at the London ParaOlympics in 2012 and then, surprising everyone, won the bronze medal.

“Things like this don’t happen to kids like us,” said Dartanyan after the games. Fenn agrees – “Blind and legless kids from the ghettos don’t get college educations and shiny accolades, but they should. And that is why I stayed. Because hope and love and rejoicing and redemption can happen to kids like them. And people like me, people from the “other side,” who can soften life’s blows for them, ought to help.”

When Jesus responds to the Lawyer’s question with his parable, he changes the answer to create a new question. The lawyer asks, “who is my neighbor?” He is looking for limits, for definitions, for categories.

When Jesus concludes his story about the Good Samaritan he asks, “Who was a neighbor to the man in need?” Not ‘Which man was a neighbor?’ but ‘Who was neighborly?’ Suddenly, the neighbor in Jesus’ parable isn’t the person in need. It isn’t the man half-dead on the side of the road. Suddenly, the neighbor is the unlikely, surprising, even offensive person who provides for our needs.

It begs the thought – all these years when we’ve interpreted this story as a way to point us towards those we are meant to help, to open our eyes to the ways we have passed by, too busy or preoccupied to see the man in need. Perhaps what Jesus is really asking us to see, is the ways in which some unlikely person reached out beyond categories and lifted us up, healed our wounds, carried us to safety. Because none of us have gotten where we are without a person like Lisa Fenn. Perhaps each of us is more like the man on the road, hurting and suffering, waiting for someone to take notice. Even Lisa Fenn will admit that those two boys filled a space in her life, that otherwise would have been wanting. Even she would say, opening herself up to the ways they might change her, transform her, was as powerful as anything she ever did for them.

What is striking to me, as I watched the interviews of Lisa and Leroy and Dartanyan, as they each described themselves as a family, as they each could not imagine their lives without the other, was the way that each of them allowed themselves to be changed forever, by the other. And the way: you can see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices, that each of them was transformed, saved really, in reaching out to another, being vulnerable, being open, becoming neighbors.

May it be so for each of us. Amen.

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