"Guidance From A Thoughtful Spirit"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - July 11, 2004
Psalm 82; Luke 10:25-37
Honest and authentic acts of compassion are not easy to sustain in our culture. People come to St. Matthew’s constantly believing that we hold the answer to their financial challenges. Sometimes their stories are so heart-rending that I wish we were a heavily endowed social service agency who specializes in helping people learn how better to manage their money as well as assisting them through some perceived emergency. Rarely does giving money ever help others change spending patterns that they have spent years creating.
There are numerous elements in the Good Samaritan story that will help us examine our own spirit of compassion. First, the story helps us ask ourselves a question. Who do we want to be when we come upon someone obviously needing help? Who do we want to be when we find someone who is locked out of his or her car? What is our response when we learn that someone is coming home to an empty house following surgery? Will we choose to mow our neighbors’ lawn when we learn that our neighbors are out of town for an extended period? How thoughtfulness we are is often the guide to our decision-making.
Many years ago I drove a VW bug. I kept the car on the road for a long time because I did a lot of the maintenance on it myself. One of the tasks I never learned, however, was how to change a fan belt. One day my belt broke while driving on the beltway. With the little hood up in the back of the car, there I stood staring at the engine. I could not figure out how to stretch that belt over the engine pulley. Of course, this episode took place in a day before cell phones were available.
It was not long before a car pulled in behind me. To my surprise and chagrin, a woman about my age got out and walked toward me. She asked, “What’s the problem?” I explained. She said, “I used to own one of these. Do you have a screw driver, a lug wrench and an extra fan belt?” She knew that VWs always have a spare belt. This woman talked me through the process of taking my pulley apart and installing my fan belt.
I never forgot her. Note the
flow of her energy. Like the Samaritan, she noticed me and stopped. I
had not asked for anything, but no doubt I was communicating my
helplessness by staring at the engine. In one of those random acts of
kindness, she suddenly became a guardian angel who showed up when there
was a need. What that experience did was inspire me to want to be
like her. There is an ancient teaching in Buddhism that says, “When you
are helped, do not rest until you have helped ten others.”
We need to be careful of our thoughts particularly when so many come to us believing that our money will solve their problems. Our spirit of generosity and compassion can become desensitized after repeated requests. Many of us will give when asked, but a more important spirit to develop is one that inspires us to give of ourselves before being asked. When we refine our compassionate nature, our spirits find themselves being directed by thoughtfulness. We are always scanning our horizons for opportunities to be of service. This spirit, modeled by the Samaritan, is what Jesus used to answer the teacher of the Law.
In addition to our giving unsolicited compassion, there is a second element to this story. The person in the ditch had absolutely no way to help himself. In fact, he may have been dying. Predators had robbed and badly beaten him. When we find ourselves confronted with a situation where we appear to be the only solution, once again thoughtful compassion inspires us to roll up our sleeves and set aside our previous plans for the day.
There is an interesting story that parallels Jesus’ parable. It is about a man who fell into a deep pit that had been dug many years before by people interested in trapping an animal that had been preying on the villagers. The pit was barely visible even though it was located only 20 feet from a well-traveled trail.
This particular gentleman was a birder and had traveled to an exotic part of the world to take pictures of various varieties. By focusing on the birds nesting in the treetops, he strayed from the path and fell. The injured man began screaming for help.
A Hindu came along and spoke to him. He said, “I see that you have fallen into a pit. You are now faced with a wonderful opportunity. In your struggles to free yourself from this trap, you will learn much about yourself and become more empathetic toward your brothers and sisters who likewise struggle with life-issues that are very similar to being in this pit.” The Hindu blessed the man and went on his way.
A Buddhist came by, and, upon hearing the man’s call for help, stopped and looked down. He, too, became a teacher of great wisdom. “There are consequences to every thought, emotion and deed,” he said. “Consequences are possibly the greatest teachers anyone can have. Without them we would not learn of our current boundaries nor would we see our horizons. You grew careless while walking on your path. From this experience you will learn much about the universe and about yourself. I bid you well as you discover within your circumstances how to liberate your body and spirit from what now holds you prisoner.”
A little while longer a Christian came by, and, upon seeing the man in the pit, he immediately found a tree that had fallen. He struggled to lower the tree into the pit. He used its thicker branches to climb down to where the man lay. The birder had broken his arm and badly sprained his ankle. He could not climb or walk.
Positioning the man over his shoulders, the rescuer climbed the tree. Together they emerged from the pit and eventually made their way to a medical facility. Three men had come upon the injured man with their truth, but only one gave form to what they knew in order to help someone who had no means to help himself.
One of the lesser-publicized stories coming from Iraq unfolded recently when a non-English speaking Iraqi woman brought her young teenage daughter to an American physician. Upon examining her, he sensed that she might have cervical cancer. He immediately made arrangements for her to be transported to Germany where she received life-saving surgery.
I recall a scene when I was leaving Bowie one evening after dark. Two Prince George’s County police officers had a driver on the shoulder of Rt. 50. As I drove passed them, I discovered that the officers had not stopped this person because of a traffic violation. The driver was a very pregnant woman with two small children. The officers were helping her change a flat tire. One was working on replacing the tire while the other held a flashlight.
Many of us have this
compassionate quality. Our faith does not consist of abstract beliefs
that remain detached from our behavior. We have developed a very
generous, unselfish culture in America. We cannot take our cues
concerning the spiritual health of our citizens by dwelling on the
stories concerning the few who shoplift, drive aggressively, engage in
crime, set fire to people’s property, embezzle money or lie to Federal
investigators. These are the stories that bathe our senses as they
dominate the evening news. People such as these do not constitute the
majority of Americans. It is interesting how a story about a Good
Samaritan has survived long after the stories of others have faded from
A third element in Jesus’ parable comes to the surface when we consider his use of a Samaritan as the hero for his story. Jesus used Samaritans numerous times as teaching models knowing how much the Jews disliked them. Jesus also knew that the teacher of the Law wanted to be viewed by the Master as a faithful follower of Moses’ Law.
The teacher had been obedient to loving the Lord his God with all his heart, soul, strength and mind, and he claimed to love his neighbor as himself. The lawyer went further with his inquiry and asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ message to the teacher implied, “The Samaritan, who belongs to a group of people you despise, is your neighbor.”
Now and then we have incidents reported in the news that are called “hate crimes.” Recently we learned from media sources that someone used a product like Roundup to destroy a portion of a person’s front lawn. The dead grass formed the design of a cross.
Very few people ever dream of revealing the quality of their spirit by acting on impulsive thoughts of destruction. But we may hold within our minds unkind thoughts about Jews. We may develop uneasy, suspicious feelings while being around a man wearing a turban or women who are dressed in a manner symbolizing their faith orientation with Islam. Being a neighbor the way Jesus suggested means having no distinctions between the worthiness and unworthiness of people before we express our compassion to them. Our response needs to be automatic.
In another lifetime, I used to lead teens on backpacking expeditions from our Conference camp at Manidokan. We would spend four days on the Appalachian Trail traveling about 25 miles. One year I had a very diverse group. Two rather stout girls had signed up to go. I could tell that one of them might have problems because she was wearing an old pair of tennis shoes rather than more proper hiking boots.
The second day she had developed blisters. One of the teens in the group was a trained First Aid Instructor. He was our designated “doctor” on the trip and had the moleskin, tape and various products used to control infections. When I directed him to render assistance to her, he hesitated. Then he gave the materials to her and said, “Here, fix your foot.” When I spoke to him about “his bedside manner” and why he withheld his skills, he said, “I have never talked to a black person in my life until just now.” I had just tumbled onto an unrecognized belief that had become activated during a moment of human need. I had no response. He knew the problem was his.
During our lunch break about an
hour later, I watched him sit with her. He said, “Let me look at both
of your feet.” He put her one foot in his lap and started to work on
it. Before long I saw the two of them laughing. Something had happened
between them causing the ice to begin its thaw.
When it was time to start walking again, he was no longer leading and setting the walking pace for our group. He had chosen to remain behind to encourage her. He had also lashed her backpack to his own, giving a different form to the words of that song, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” What a break-through!
Being a neighbor cannot be translated into our learning how to treat others as charity cases. Coming to such a conclusion would be to miss the point of the story. A thoughtful spirit is one that is always looking for opportunities to be of service regardless of the person, that person’s need or the circumstances of our being too busy to help. If we are that busy, we are too busy to be following the teachings of Jesus who said, “I have come among you as one who serves. Follow me!”
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, thank
you for being in our lives as one who desires to teach as we become open
to learning. Thank you for your patience with us even when our minds
are focused only on goals attached to our self-interest. There are
moments when how to be a good neighbor is not an easy choice. When does
our expressing compassion enable someone to remain as they are? When
does our intervention prevent someone from learning that there are
consequences to their choices? May we learn that it is you, O God, who
creates through our intentions. While our touch, words, and deeds do
not always bring the result we had hoped, may others be guided by the
spirit that inspires us to be their friend. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
As we enter these moments of prayer, O God,
we recognize how much energy we spend during an average week wrestling
with ourselves. There are times when the consequences of our deeds are
not clear. There are moments when we have clearly failed someone and
our compassion has been replaced with guilt. We have experiences that
require us to use logic while making a “sound” decision and then we are
confronted with our desire to walk by faith. We often cannot discern
within ourselves when our needs are real or when they are merely
feelings rooted in fear.
Help us to remember each day that we follow
someone who taught centuries ago, “I have come among you as one who
serves.” When we follow, he becomes our savior. He guides us around
the pitfalls of self-absorption and greed. He guides us to expand who
we are by giving ourselves away. He teaches us that peace and fulfilled
spirits come as a result of deeds done each day for others. When our
minds are filled with gratitude for all our life experiences, may our
spirit remain a guide for others.
Guide those of us who fear our faith is fragile. Bring stillness to hearts that are consumed with fear and frustration. Nurture those of us who find life boring and unfulfilling. Encourage us to change how we think so that our vision will discover all the opportunities that surround us to make this world a better place to live. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .