Second Sunday in Lent
When I make a visit to Chippenham hospital, exiting the parkway at Jahnke Rd. or head to the Presbytery office at the boulevard off-ramp of I-64, I often see someone sitting by the side of the road with a cardboard sign.
Will work for food
Kids at home
Disabled, Homeless Veteran
Anything you can do to help…God bless…
I suspect this has happened to you often as well. And just as often, such sights set up internal debates. Should I look them in the eye? Or if I am not going to give them something, is eye contact leading them on? If I ignore them, is that dehumanizing? What does a smile say? On the other hand, a solemn face doesn’t seem appropriate either. Should I have thought ahead? Kept a tin of Vienna sausages at the ready? Or maybe I could have told him about Grace Café…Offered a card with CARITAS and CCHASM information on it? If I don’t do anything, can I still look that person in the eye, or is that rude? Perhaps I should just look straight ahead at the light, or the car in front of me, waiting for movement. Do red lights seem longer in those moments? A car ahead holds a dollar out the window, do I even carry cash anymore?
Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Last week we began talking about the landscape of the Beatitudes. We noted that the word “blessing” can be understood as “being in the right place, if…” These beatitudes are not our new law. They are not our new check list to become “good Christians.” In fact it took 1,500 years before Christians, in the guise of the Reformers, began to understand that living a life modelling the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes was even possible short of actually being Christ. So now, the beatitudes are best understood as part of the faith landscape of our lives. We are on the right road…when we are merciful. We are on the right road when our hearts are pure.
These blessings, these roadmaps to where we are on the journey of faith, do not stand on their own in scripture. They are woven in and out of scripture. For example, we find them in a parable Jesus taught about four men walking down the same road. The first one, after being attacked, just lay there. His pain and anxiety were off the charts after being beaten, stripped, robbed and left to die. Traveling further down the road were a priest, a little further a Levite, and further still a Samaritan, each of them in motion toward the spot where the first fellow was attacked.
The priest’s lack of attention is the most surprising. Isn’t it his calling to help? On the other hand, I’m sure that he had a lot going on. Maybe he was thinking about an upcoming worship service. Maybe he was reflecting deeply on the Torah and was on the brink of a very spiritually uplifting thought that he could share with others, giving him tunnel vision. Or maybe he was scared by the sight of someone beaten up on the side of the road. Or perhaps there was a moment when he unconsciously started to think about things going on in his own life rather than the life of the man in front of him. He thought about the places he needed to be or the work he had to finish that night. He thought about his family and how he couldn’t afford to be put in a position where he might get beaten up. Within a few minutes, he came up with dozens of reasons why approaching the man was a bad idea.
Can you picture what happened at that moment? His feet began veering left, away from the man. His eyesight shifted further ahead, as if something important was happening 100 yards down the road. He made a wide detour around the beaten man in order to keep the man out of his line of sight because he knew that seeing the man, looking at his battered body and his desperate face, might cancel out all of his good reasons to keep on truckin’ down the road.
Something went on in the mind of the Levite as well. Something made the Levite move from one side of the road to the other in order not to see or encounter the hurting man. The story tells us two people made wide detours in order to avoid someone in need, in order to avoid looking into the eyes of someone in the midst of pain.
Helmut Theilike noted: “Love always seizes the eyes first and then the hand. If I close my eyes, my hands, too, remain unemployed. And finally my conscience, too, falls asleep, for this disquieting neighbor has disappeared from sight.” Jesus describes the same sight lines when telling his followers that it was he whom we met in the hungry, the stranger, the sick, the naked, and the imprisoned. And Matthew says the righteous ones asked him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or sick or a stranger?” Their response, or their excuse, to Jesus is, “Lord, we did not see you.”
The priest and Levite did not help the man on the road because they did not really see him. Mercy requires sight. Pure in heart is like a magnifying glass to the world around us. It washes away our preconceived notions and allows the Holy Spirit to guide our vision. So maybe these men walked around the injured fellow without fully realizing that they were even doing so. They had no capacity to respond, so they would not allow themselves to see what was right in front of them. If they had to respond to Jesus’ question about helping the hungry, the sick, the stranger, they could point back to their footprint on the road which showed that, because of their indirect route of crossing to the other side of the road, there was no way either one could have really seen what was going on with the man.
If the beatitudes are about where we are in life, we need to pay attention to the places where we live, the roads we walk every day. If a blessing implies that we are on the right road, that we are in the right place, we need to look more closely at the places we live each and every day.
Laurie Anderson, in her young adult novel Wintergirls, tells the story of Lia, a teenager struggling with anorexia. Her parent’s dealing with a divorce and her best friend gone, Lia’s struggles go unnoticed by those who walk beside her every day. Even though her body mass gradually begins to waste away, and she comes up with reasons to miss dinner at home and skip out of the cafeteria at school, her family and her teachers and her friends avoid seeing her pain because pain comes with uncertainty. It comes with discomfort. There are not quick solutions to people’s pain and fear. Lia’s life is messy, and troubles are messy. Her teachers, her parents, and her friends don’t see her, not really. They don’t see her and therefore cannot show her mercy. They cannot help her move toward a place of physical and emotional healing. They cannot connect with her.
I can’t even begin to imagine the number of times we have seen the sick, the hurting, the stranger with every step we take, but because of distractions, because of our comfort, because of our life experience, we haven’t seen them. There is no magic way to have our lives line up with the Bible’s audacious, irrational claims when it comes to caring for those in need. Mercy requires honesty – those who need mercy live all around the world and are actually our neighbors, our fellow church members, sometimes ourselves.
Pure in heart requires our convictions. We actually act and decide and choose and spend as if the Bible means all this stuff about mercy. It means we buy into the idea that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically when he said, “When you did this to the least of these – you did it to me.”
The Beatitudes require relationship. What God says in scripture is: forget about yourself and enter the world of another. Without reservation or judgment, fully…completely…faithfully…close up. Jesus is serious about this. With our honesty, with our convictions, with our relationships – what is the next choice, decision or action we will offer –with eyes wide open and hands out stretched.
Baptist minister Will Campbell, was a civil rights pioneer, and the inspiration for Doug Marlette’s wonderful Will B. Dunn comic minister. He also wrote one of the most beautiful and challenging books ever written, Brother to a Dragonfly. In the book, Campbell recounts a time in the late 1960s when he was to be a speaker at a conference of the US National Student Association, consisting of representatives of the young New Left radicals of that time. Before he spoke, the conference viewed a documentary called “The Ku Klux Klan –An Invisible Empire,” which showed such horrors as the murder of the three civil rights workers in Mississippi, the castration in Alabama of a man named Judge Aaron, and the murders of the four little girls in the Birmingham church bombing. The film took the viewer inside a Georgia Klan Klavern hall where an initiation ceremony was taking place. At one point the candidates were lined up in military formation and shouted the command “left face.” One scared and pathetic figure turned right instead, bringing confusion to the formation and brining cheers, jeers catcalls, and guffaws from the conference audience viewing the film. Campbell remembers:
“I felt a sickening in my stomach. Those viewing the film were alleged to be on the cutting edge of social change –black and white, women and men, who had been taking over campuses in recent months. They used words like establishment as if it were poison. Who were they beyond that? Most of them were from middle and upper middle class families. They were students or recent graduates of rich and leading universities and colleges. They were mean and tough but somehow I sense there wasn’t a radical in the bunch. For if they were radical, how could they laugh at a poor, ignorant farmer who didn’t know his left hand from his right. If they had been radical, they would have been weeping – asking what had produced him.”
After the film, it came time for Campbell’s speech, and then he was to lead a discussion on the film. So, he stood up and said:
“My name is Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist minister. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansman because I’m pro-human being. Now, that’s my speech. If anyone has any questions, I will be glad to try to answer them.”
The last sentence wasn’t out of his mouth before bedlam broke out. Blacks and whites were shouting at Campbell and storming from the hall. The next half hour was sheer pandemonium.
Campbell noted it was one of the few times he felt fearful of bodily harm. He later reflected, “It was the first time I had realized the power of words. I had intended to begin a dialogue, maybe even a heated dialogue, but I had not intended to start a riot.” Finally, with just a few people remaining in the audience, Campbell wrote:
“It took time to get my little band of radicals settled down enough to point out to them that just four words uttered – ‘pro-Klansman, Mississippi Baptist preacher’ –coupled with one visual image: white – had turned them into everything thy thought the KKK to be: hostile, frustrated, angry, violent, and irrational. And I was never able to explain to them that pro-Klansman is not the same as pro-Klan. That the former has to do with the person, while the other with an ideology.”
There is mercy and purity in Campbell’s story that is…confounding. If I had been sitting in the room, I would not have stormed out, but it would have been difficult for me to hear his message. Even today, I can make logical, justice-filled arguments that to be pro-anybody who does so much damage to God’s people is damaging in itself. But I also know I don’t see everything. One thing the Beatitudes do is give us clear eyes. They correct my vision, they provide clarity as they work on the purity of my heart. They unblock my field of vision as I continue to learn to become a person of mercy.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. To learn about Jesus Christ, encounter the living God, and to experience mercy, we must open our eyes to the places in our lives calling out for mercy, places we may have consciously or unconsciously missed out on seeing. We must walk each day with eyes open, preparing to be interrupted.
We are blessed when we are merciful. We are on the right road when we see the opportunities to be merciful and live them out in every part of our lives, in obvious ways and in ways that will confound us each and every day.
© 2017 Gordon B. Mapes III, all rights reserved