The theme for the week was “God’s Big Backyard.” As I spent time immersing myself in the curriculum, preparing for the opening and closing program, gathering materials for a couple stations, listening to the 8-10 songs and trying to memorize the hand motions [very unsuccessfully, simply not one of my gifts], I found myself growing more and more connected to this theme. Not only the verse of loving God and neighbor and the themes of service, but simply the thought that truly, all the world is God’s Big Backyard. Everything we see around us, like what we read from Psalm 148 – the sun, the moon, the stars, the sky, the trees, the oceans, the mountains, hills, rivers, and all the animals…and even especially all people are a part of God’s Big Backyard. This means that though we are inhabitants of God’s Big Backyard, we are actually more tenants in a way, renters leasing out space for a short time, meaning, we live in a place that we do not possess simply for our own benefit, but we then have many opportunities to choose to live out the call to care for each other and our world.
What a humbling! And beautiful! And simple vision of this world…as something that is as close to the home and heart of God as our own backyards. Backyards…a space we call our own. So, what is in our backyards? I was looking at my backyard the other day, and marveling at what a mess it is right now…but I love it. It’s best when Ellis, our dog is out there, right around dusk or twilight, especially this time of year with the lightening bugs, running around, digging holes, and tearing off branches from the one tree out there. Andy does do a tremendous job mowing the grass faithfully every week, for which I am thankful, and I do love looking at the shrubs, the plants that grow the same way each year, the little ivy here and there, the pachysandra, and even the weeds…Some of us here today might also have a patio or deck, maybe a big swimming pool perfect for hot summer days, nice gas grills for those BBQs on the weekend.
What I’ve noticed more and more though is that most houses have huge, sturdy fences. Whenever I take Ellis on walks through this neighborhood I walk by many, and we have one, too, otherwise we might never see Ellis again. Fences are necessary for a number of good reasons…protection and security, and marking out one’s land and territory, and for keeping our dog from running away with the neighbor’s dog. But, FENCES, by their very nature, are structures that keep people in or out, and virtually encourage passing…people passing on opportunities to help, opportunities for connection, opportunities for community.
TT: “Passing.” “Passed.” That’s what the so-called servants of God, the Priest and Levite, in our familiar story today, sadly did to the man who had been robbed, beaten to a bloody pulp, and left barely hanging by a thread on the side of the road. They passed by literally on the other side.
A priest during that time was the ultimate symbol of God’s law. One could argue that being a priest he had to uphold a certain ritual purity in order to serve in God’s temple, and so, if the man happened to be dead, and the priest touched him, he would be considered unpure. Still, it is not only ironic, but somewhat disheartening that he, at this point, seems to choose convenience and ritual cleanliness, he chooses his vocational obligations, he chooses what he thought would seem more “priestly” in that moment than the possibility of saving the man’s life. He took one look at the man lying on the ground, and walked away, averting his eyes.
Likewise, the Levite, another spiritual leader, as one commentary offers, “was of the same tribe as the priest but of one of the inferior branches. As a servant of the Temple, a custodian of religious worship, and an interpreter of the law, he should also have been eager to assist the battered man.” The tradition of the Levites is long-standing, it goes back centuries to the time of Joseph’s sons, they are his descendents, and especially special and chosen for this task. This Levite no doubt had a similar grasp of the God’s law, he knew even about the specific commandments that require Jews to help even an enemy if their donkey is lost or overburdened, BUT he, too quickened his step towards the other side of the road.
I can’t help but conclude that they passed by not because of the fences around this helpless man, but because of their own fences…The fences that they had constructed around their lives and perspectives because of tradition or convenience or propriety, their own interpretation of God’s laws and commandments based on prioritizing expediency, because of maybe something even deeper that runs through all of us, pride and ego, fear and insecurity …
TW: And so, this makes me turn towards me…us. How often do we pass up the opportunity to reach out to someone not because of the fences around the other person, but because of our own fences? In the same way this helpless man fell prey to the robbers who took his possessions and his very life, we all fall prey to this tendency. We would rather stay within our own fences and pass by than touch or be touched, heal or be healed, connect and create community.
So, when we encounter someone who is of a different economic class, maybe someone homeless or transient, we pass by on the other side of the road. When we encounter someone who is of a different ethnicity, maybe someone who is foreign and doesn’t speak English, or someone whose cultural practices we don’t understand at all, we pass by on the other side of the road. When we encounter someone who maybe is of a different generation, whether older or younger, because we feel we might not be able to understand or relate to them we pass by on the other side of the road. When we encounter someone who is truly in need, whether in the Dominican Republic, or central Philly, or downtown Easton, because it just isn’t easy or convenient enough for us or it doesn’t fit our schedule or our vacation time, we pass by on the other side of the road.
Whatever the reason, we have the inclination to see an-Other as unknown or different and as truly a stranger, because now it’s habit and it’s been ingrained in us: we maintain our territory and land, our livelihood and vocation, our traditions and customs, our priorities. We hold onto what’s easy and familiar. We stay on our side of the road. We cling to our side of the fence.
GT: What never ceases to amaze me about this story is how it ends. The scene shifts after the Priest and Levite walk quickly by … back to the half-dead man on the side of the road. Perhaps we see an accelerated picture of the sun going down and sun coming back up, at least once, maybe a couple of times to signify the passing of one, two, maybe three or four more days. This man is now completely dehydrated and starving, bleeding literally to death, half naked, and the scene is just hopeless.
However, slowly the scene pans out and away to a small figure in the distance that is traveling maybe on a horse or donkey towards the man. And as he draws closer, we hold our breath, desperate, wondering, but maybe even expecting, he will go on and simply pass by on the other side of the road, too.
The traveler doesn’t. His pity and compassion MOVES him to the man who is lying there dying and taking shallow breaths that he even doesn’t see right away. He touches the man gingerly to see if he is still alive, takes his pulse and feels a slight heartbeat. Now he sees the man’s chest rising and falling but it’s still barely discernible. The man begins to wake up a little, but he is startled and terrified, afraid that the robbers have come back to finish the job, or maybe it is someone else who will hurt him more.
So, he looks into the face of the traveler above bent over him, and he realizes that it is a Samaritan. He remembers in a foggy haze that he is a Jew, and here is his sworn enemy, someone who in normal circumstances he wouldn’t go near 10 or 20 or 100 feet, standing over him, breathing on him, reaching down for him … and the terror immediately rises in him again. He struggles once more, tries to push him away, but the Samaritan touches him again, gently, this time with oil, bandages, and even puts a little wine to his lips. Desperate to survive this horrendous tragedy, he gives in, he breaks down his de-fenses, and allows the Samaritan to pick him up, place him on his animal, and take him to the nearest inn.
What makes this an incredible, extravagant picture of grace is knowing a little something about the huge Great-Wall-of-China fence that is present between this man and the Samaritan. We might remember that Samaritans and Jews simply never got along, you would never catch one “on the other side of the tracks,” which is quite the understatement: in fact, they hated each other and the name of the other was a curse word. They were truly enemies. It was even conceivable that the robbers who beat the man might have even been Samaritans. But, this Samaritan, overlooked these walls and fences, he not only walked through to the other side, he crashed through these barriers of tradition and history, when he stopped and saved this Jewish man.
GW: Now, this story is not just an exaggerated picture of the struggle between good and evil and the rescue of a man in a dire situation. It’s not just an example about how we’re to help people in tough situations. It’s not just a moral lesson that tells us how we should be like the Samaritan and act towards our neighbors.
It’s more like a little history lesson…a smaller version of the story about God’s redemption, that began at the beginning of time, when he first created this beautiful, big backyard and intended from day one to bring us into relationship, a friendship, a family with him. Even in the Incarnation, when as John writes, “the Word became flesh,” writer and pastor, Eugene Peterson aptly describes it as “God moved into the neighborhood.” There just weren’t any fences in the beginning. Another commentator writes that the question, “who is my neighbor?” simply begs for fences, for this question emphasizes people as “classifiable commodities.” God never asked the question. And we were the ones that made fences…between us and God, between us and one another, and even within ourselves. But, thankfully God didn’t pass us by even when we were lying lifeless on the side of road. God, despite our wretchedness, our stranger status, our enemy nature, God crashed through the fences of a reality of commandments, righteousness, and holiness, crashed through even our fences, our walls, our roadblocks, because in his passion he longed, and still longs, to touch us. To heal us. To pick us up. To save us.
God’s been doing this throughout history, even recently. God crashed through the Berlin Wall. God crashed through the walls of apartheid in South Africa. God crashed through American slavery and barriers of racism through the Civil Rights movement. God continues to break down our walls and fences so that we might live in the way he initially meant for us in the very beginning in his big backyard, that is, living in meaningful, genuine community with each other and God. We were meant to live this way, in this radical connection with people, both friend and stranger, even enemy, because it is in these relationships, this kind of surprising, unexpected community, we experience grace, we experience love, we experience God’s very presence, what we might encounter in the Gospels as “heaven” or the “kingdom of God.”
This past week, we were able to experience this glimpse of heaven, this community of people, unexpectedly with the children who participated in VBS. Do you know that I was ministered to by these children? Their shining faces, their poignant expressions, their authentic articulations moved me beyond explanation… Little Alex promised that he would give one of his projects to his younger brother, Adam. Little 6 year old Aiden came up to me one day and enthusiastically shared how he had shared with a friend how we are to love God and love our neighbor. Little Sam shared this story of the Good Samaritan with his grandmother, faithfully proclaiming the Gospel in his own way. The kids laughed, they sang, they played, and they reached out, they passed through that which would have been boundaries in an adult world, loved and learned and lived this week…truly, there were no fences here.
May we take their example and live courageously in God’s Big Backyard, trusting that God has through the Holy Spirit empowered all of his children, including you and me, to reach out to the world in the same way God has reached across the walls for us. So, as we leave this place and go out of the doors of the sanctuary, remember that there is a big backyard out there. Let’s run, play, laugh, and serve one another…brother, sister, neighbor, friend, stranger, all…and if necessary, jump a fence or two.