We are here to learn how to say thank you; not for the Christmas and Chanukah presents – hopefully you said thank you when you opened them. We’re here to learn how to say thank you to Life itself, to be reminded that we’re in the midst of a kind of miracle, if you will – this amazing, wonderful, challenging, sometimes difficult life.
We’re thankful for the old year, for special moments, for new insights and understandings, for family and friends; for teachers who helped along the way.
We’re thankful for the new year we just started.
There are many ways to say thank you – some of them are silent, just our own inner thoughts. May we learn again, and again, how to say thank you.
Reading, with Children:
Luke 10:25-37 – “The Good Samaritan”
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put (Jesus) to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Or, ‘to live a good life. Or, to be a good person.’) He said to him, “What is written in the Bible? The lawyer answered, You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and mind and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered right; do this, and you will live inherit eternal life.”
But he questioned Jesus further, asking, “And who is my neighbor?”
So Jesus answered by telling a story, a Parable. He said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who beat him up, and stripped him and left him naked, and, hurt. Now by chance a member of the temple clergy was going down that road; and when he saw the wounded man he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, an assistant to the clergy in the temple, when he came to the place and saw the wounded man he passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journey saw the wounded man he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and healing ointment; then he set him on the donkey he had been riding and he brought the wounded man to an inn, and he tended to the man’s wounds. The next day he took out some money and gave it to the innkeeper, saying, `Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I promise to repay you when I come back.’ So Jesus said to the lawyer: ‘Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a loving neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “You’re right; do the same and you’ll have a good life.”
What Really Counts
The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a favorite summary of the teachings of Jesus. As a matter of fact, it’s a story that could fit into any of the great religions, since it’s about the most essential thing about religion – which is how you live your life, or how you can be a good person – it’s an illustration of the Golden Rule.
In the story the lawyer asks what he can do to ‘inherit eternal life.’
Maybe he’s asking how he can get into heaven. Remember what Jesus said about the kingdom of heaven? He said “The kingdom of heaven is in your midst.” In other words, it’s here and now. It’s happens when you follow what the prophet Micah said ‘is required of you,’ which is ‘to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.’
We’re reminded that Jesus was Jewish – his parables come directly from Jewish teaching, including this well-known story about the Good Samaritan, or what it means to be a good person.
I don’t think his reference to eternal life was about a place you go after you die; it’s about a state of mind that can come from time to time during this lifetime. It’s about the immediate, certain reward that results from simple acts of kindness and compassion. Kindness, compassion and humility are the essential ingredients to this thing we call ‘being human,’ or ‘becoming more human’ by your actions.
Wesley Autrey provided a perfect example this past week in the Subway station at 137th Street. You know the story; it made the front page of the NY Times and news stories on television.
Wesley Autrey, a 50-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran, was waiting for the downtown local at 137th Street 12:45 p.m. He was taking his two daughters, Syshe, 4, and Shuqui, 6, home before work.
A young man who had been standing nearby collapsed and went into a convulsion. Mr. Autrey and two women rushed to help. The man managed to get up, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell to the tracks.
The headlights of the No. 1 train appeared. “I had to make a split decision,” Mr. Autrey said. He did, indeed, make a most extraordinary decision – he jumped down, pushed the man into the space between the tracks, put his head down and waited.
Five cars rolled over them and when the train finally came to a stop he called out to the amazed bystanders that they were okay.
“I don’t feel like I did something spectacular,” he said, “I just saw someone who needed help and I did what I felt was right.”
Talk about a Good Samaritan!
(Note: At this point in preparing the sermon I took a call from a woman in distress; she had lost her job, met someone from the church who suggested she call me, and I was able to give her the money she needed to keep the electricity on and get some food. The money came from you. She was most appreciative, and I told her that the help came from you, through the Ministers’ Discretionary Fund.)
Let’s return to Mr. Autrey’s incredible act of jumping onto the subway tracks and holding the man who fell: I know I won’t be the only clergy person talking about him, and I suspect that all of those who do will be in basic agreement though some will use theological language I generally avoid. My theology says that there is something in each of us that gets activated when we see another person in distress or simply in some kind of need. Often we can’t do much to help, but the activation of that sense of compassion is as much theology as we need, most of the time. I prefer to call it ‘the presence of God’ in us, if you will. It doesn’t matter what words you use, if any. But it’s real.
The Good Samaritan story I had planned to use came from a recent request for a reading I did on Christmas Eve six years ago. The copy I have is attributed to Kent Nerburn.
“Twenty years ago, I drove a cab for a living. It was a cowboy’s life, a life for someone who wanted no boss. Because I drove the night shift, my cab became a moving confessional. Passengers climbed in, sat behind me in total anonymity, and told me about their lives. I encountered people whose lives amazed me, ennobled me, made me laugh and weep. But none touched me more than a woman I picked up late one August night.
I was responding to a call from a small brick fourplex in a quiet part of town. I assumed I was being sent to pick up some partiers, or someone who had just had a fight with a lover, or a worker heading to an early shift at some factory for the industrial part of town. When I arrived at 2:30 a.m., the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window.
Under such circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, then drive away. But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself. So I walked to the door and knocked.
“Just a minute”, answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie. By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box filled with photos and glassware.
“Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. “It’s nothing”, I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated”.
“Oh, you’re such good boy”, she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, “Can you drive through downtown?”
“It’s not the shortest way,” I answered quickly. “Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice”. I looked in the rearview mirror. Her eyes were glistening. “I don’t have any family left,” she continued. “The doctor says I don’t have very long.”
I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. “What route would you like me to take?” I asked. For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.
As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.” We drove in silence to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her. I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.
“How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse.
“Nothing,” I said.
“You have to make a living,” she answered.
“There are other passengers,” I responded. Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly.
“You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.” I squeezed her hand, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life. I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought.
For the rest of that day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away? On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life.
We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments. But great moments often catch us unaware – beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a “small one.”
Yesterday was the Christian ‘feast of the Epiphany,’ the conclusion of the Christmas season. Kent Nerburn tells an epiphany story, how he became one of the wise men; how he had an epiphany that came after that long journey, not just the journey of driving a cab all night and listening to people from his back-seat confessional, but his epiphany came after all the experiences of his life that preceded the drive to the hospice with a woman in her final chapter of life: “I’ve come to realize that I haven’t done anything more important in my life,” he said.
An epiphany happens when we ‘realize’ something. Sometimes an epiphany comes in retrospect; looking back on an experience, or set of experiences, that were little lessons leading to the most important insight.
Micah says, “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”
I had a sense of that sacred, inner feeling yesterday as I stood at the bridge in Westport with 40 or 50 others and we read the names of the 3,000 Americans killed in Iraq so far.
When the book was passed to me I felt like I was holding something sacred – the memory of each one…behind whose name was a room full of grieving loved ones, family and friends, a life they’ve lived, and the ‘closing of that life,’ like the door the cab driver heard close when he took his passenger to the hospice.
We who stood together at the bridge took turns reading the names, and I watched the change that came over the face of each as he or she took the book; there were lots of grandmothers and grandfathers, some grandchildren, like Kelly English who stood with her mother, KC and her grandmother Sue Senie from our congregation.
From time to time the reader simply had to stop to allow some tears; to pause in a sacred silence — beyond the anger we share about this horrific mistake — beyond the political aspect, the differences and disagreements we have with our government. We stood together with a sense of solidarity that transcends all the mundane aspects of life.
I’ve been to the bridge to protest the war. We had a rally in Westport to protest the President’s intentions to start that war. But something surprising happened at the bridge this time – I wasn’t prepared for the deep emotional, spiritual impact it had, and that’s as much of it as I can explain.
Isn’t that what the fabled Three Kings learned, that the Prince of Peace is born in us when we’re able to offer little acts of kindness? Isn’t that what spiritual wisdom means – that to be ‘one of the wise ones’ is to see that Divinity is the inherent and sacred worth of each person, as illustrated by a little baby lying in a manger, a feeding trough?
Perhaps the three kingly attributes that walk with us on our own journey toward the holy are gratitude, compassion and humility. They certainly are the key ingredients that give us ‘eternal life,’ in the sense that they allow us to be in the moment. Eternity is here. The eternal is now, when we ‘get it.’
Look again at the stories – not just the old story of the Good Samaritan – it’s a great story; not just the story of the man in the subway who jumped in front of the train and saved another man’s life, and in a way he saved his own life by giving it meaning in that moment; and not just the story of a man driving a cab who had the presence of mind to shut off the meter and allow himself to be directed to drive where an old woman’s memories could be affirmed. But look again at the stories from your own life and let some new insights, some new sense of appreciation come as a kind of epiphany.
Leo Buscaglia says it well: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself
when i was sixteen and
twenty-six and thirty-six
even thirty-six but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
i leave to forgive me
– Lucille Clifton