The Way Out of the Ditch - The Very Rev. Judith Sullivan
A sermon preached by Dean Judith Sullivan in the Cathedral on the morning of July 10, 2016, the eighth Sunday after Pentecost.
This summer we have witnessed terrible and alarming events: Mass murders by a self-proclaimed terrorist in a gay nightclub in Orlando, children continuously murdered on the streets of Philadelphia in random gun violence, terrorism and murder in the airport in Istanbul.
And they just keep coming. This week: the bombings directed at Muslims, yes Muslims, in Iraq during the most holy season of Ramadan by ISIS, and the deaths of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, at the hands of police after they were stopped for routine traffic violations. And then the assassination of five police officers who were protecting a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, Texas. Horrible. And I would like to say that this is unbelievable, but that would not be true.
The violence and hatred behind these actions take my breath away. They leave me reeling in waves of horror, frustration, grief, and anger. The disregard for human life and the carnage shock me and make me wonder what has become of our country and what has become of us. Was it just last Sunday night that I was one of the 15,000 sitting in front of Independence Hall, listening to the Philly Pops. as we proudly recalled the bold, principled actions that led a young nation to champion to liberty and certain inalienable rights and then to fight a civil war to guarantee them? The sense of disconnect in the space of a week could not be more acute or more tragic. To paraphrase President Barak Obama from his statement, we must hope and pray that surely, we are better than this.
Have we ever been more divided than we are today? Have we ever before experienced such frightening circumstances? The answer is yes. Times have been difficult and frightening before for all of us, though we know that the most vulnerable among us have carried a disproportionate share of that burden for a very long time.
What is different for us today is that because electronic media has few borders and buffers, we are experiencing traumatic, frightening events here and throughout the world in real time. Cell phones give us the vantage point of being in that car, or that nightclub, or theater, or airport. And whether the events take place within mere miles from our homes or in Ferguson, Dallas, Paris, Istanbul, Tel Aviv, or Baghdad, we see them and feel them with an immediacy and an intensity that previous generations could not imagine. It is an inviting and exciting reality that the world has become a very much smaller place. Yet, when the news is terrible, we are drawn in and literally bombarded with painful, frightening moments in the lives of people at great physical distance who may appear to be very different from us but who share our humanity.
In light of all of this change, all of this turmoil, we must ask ourselves the same question posed by the lawyer to Jesus in this morning’s gospel reading from Luke. He may have been trying to be clever, but we earnestly ask, “Who then is my neighbor?”
On the treacherous road to Jericho, a man is robbed, beaten, and left for dead. We know nothing about him or where he comes from. A priest and Levite pass by, but only the Samaritan, the reviled alien, the untouchable “other” stops. In our English translation, we are told that he is “moved with pity,” but the original Greek tells us so much more. It’s an odd word, splagchnizomai, translated better as compassion. It comes from the Greek word for the internal organs of the human body—the stomach, heart, lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys. When the Samaritan felt splagchnizomai for the beaten man, he had a sympathetic reaction deep in his gut, a visceral response that overcame any intellectual resistance that he might have had to taking action. And as he felt with and for that man, instead of moving away, he moved forward.
Did the priest and the Levite have capacity for this kind of compassion, too, or were they simply irretrievably callous human beings? Well, as in so many instances when we look for excuses for the failures and shortcomings of others, there were extenuating circumstances: Both were Temple officials and to touch a man who was dead or dying would be to suffer ritual impurity and to risk removal from their position.
Extenuating circumstances also have a way of compromising all of us. In a social psychology experiment done in the 1970’s among seminary students whom we would hope to have a predisposition to help, failed to stop when they were busy, hurried, or conflicted. With guilt and anxiety, many literally stepped over the victim on their path. The investigators concluded that “conflict rather than callousness can explain the failure to stop.” That is internal conflicts, fueled by scattered attention and self-interest, that produce a kind of moral paralysis when we don’t know what to do and we don’t think that we have enough time or resources to do anything that will really make a difference.
After all, we are well-intentioned people doing the best we can to follow Jesus on a day to day basis in a rapidly changing, complex, and sometimes dangerous world. It makes complete sense that we might grow weary of trying to help solve seemingly intractable problems like racial and economic injustice.
We might even grow resentful when we are asked to give again and again out of our material success and all that God has given to us, even if little real sacrifice is involved. It makes complete sense, but let’s be clear. Good intentions motivated by obligation and guilt are not the same thing as compassion. And without true compassion, it’s just too hard.
Compassion comes to us at a cost. The gut wrenching identification that the Samaritan felt with the wounded, broken man in the ditch grew out of the honest experience of his own vulnerability, his own need for help, his own need and longing for God. His actions were not a pious, superior hand out or hand down; they were a hand across the common bonds of human suffering from one who knew what it was to be excluded and to be “other,” who knew what it was to lie in the ditch in despair. Who knew what it was to be helped to find the way out. This is the depth of feeling and identification that is asking from us.
We all have painful stories, moments, from which, by the grace of God, we have emerged. Ditches, residual places of such pain, guilt, and powerlessness, that we may deny them in ourselves and resist experiencing them in others. But they are the touchstones of compassion, of really seeing, hearing, and responding to the real need, not the one that we imagine or that serves our own purposes.
Only when we make peace with ourselves, with these ditches that we carry on our backs, can we find the room to love and give without exhausting ourselves and depleting the reserves of what we think we must have. Only when we truly seek and accept God’s mercy and forgiveness for ourselves, in our gut, deep in our person, can we be more able to extend that same mercy to the “other”, that neighbor whom we don’t quite understand, who might frighten, enrage, frustrate, or overwhelm us.
Living like the Samaritan is a practice of prayer and repentance, beseeching God to heal and forgive us and to give us the strength, the wisdom, and the sensitivity to show us where to begin to do what is right. Not for our own ego gratification but for the sake of the suffering souls whose lives are connected to ours and with whom we share this world.
As much as the lawyer in this Gospel reading is seeking the way to eternal life, acting as the Good Samaritan is much more than a single decision or moment when we rise or fall to meet the occasion. It is really a lifetime of conversion experiences in which, little by little, we are changed and become more like Jesus.
For those of who of us who have lived and benefitted from white privilege and first world privilege, this is a painful journey in acknowledging not only how we have sinned directly, but for complicity in the sins that have been done on our behalf. For those of us who have known injury and cruelty because of our race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, sometimes for generations, the journey is a continuing struggle. A struggle for justice, dignity, and the grace to forgive the rest of us, even when there are not enough tears to cry. Every day.
Still, it is a journey that we must all make together if this parable of the Good Samaritan can be more than a hackneyed platitude and God’s dream for the world can be realized, not just in words but in action. We ARE better than this and in Jesus we have been given a vision of how God intends us to care for one another beyond hatred, prejudice, injustice, and fear, and any exalted claims that we make about ourselves and our church. The journey must lead to action, but it begins with compassion and we have a long way to go. AMEN
 Darley, J. M., and Batson, C.D., "From Jerusalem to Jericho": A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior". JPSP, 1973, 27, 100-108.