When We're Overwhelmed
July 14, 2019
Rev. Heather Kirk-Davidoff, Emmanuel Baptist Church
Someone needs to say it: The Good Samaritan got off easy.
Think about it: He encountered only one man on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho and it was completely clear that the man needed help. What's more, he knew what kind of help this man needed and he had the resources on hand to provide that help. What he did was kind and compassionate, but it was also obvious.
Where this parable gets confusing for me is in its application to our lives today. If I were to extend the parable, here's how I would describe my life as I experience it: The road I walk on every day is lined with people who have been stripped and robbed and left half-dead. I'm not just talking about the people I see in Albany who are clearly in need of help. I'm thinking of all the wounded people I encounter as I read the newspaper or listen to the radio. I'm thinking of people I know personally, family members and friends who are struggling. And if that's not enough to overwhelm me, at least once a week someone sends me a link to a Go Fund Me page. If I click on the link, which I almost always do, I hear about friends-of-friends who are facing really difficult circumstances--they have medical bills that they can't pay, their children need medication that they can't afford, they've lost everything in a fire.
And that's just the people I encounter. Imagine that there are endangered species on the side of the road--polar bears and salamanders and monarch butterflies, each left for dead. Imagine that entire ecosystems are there, gasping for breath. Imagine the ocean, the atmosphere, the entire planet, wounded and unable to ask for the help it needs. But by the end of each day, I know I've walked by people, places, and things that need my help many more times than the Priest and the Levite in the parable ever did.
How do we walk on a road like that? Does this parable, this simple story of a man who stops and helps a single injured stranger, have anything to teach us about how we travel a life journey in which we encounter an overwhelming amount of need?
As I've contemplated that question over the past week, it has occurred to me that while I don't find it easy to connect to the Good Samaritan, I do relate to another person in this story: the lawyer who asks Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" That is a question that is seeking a limit, a boundary. Jesus has just reminded him of the commandment to love your neighbor and the lawyer wants to define neighbor so that he knows what the limit to that commandment is. He's asking in order to figure out who is NOT his neighbor because then he's off the hook with having to care for those people.
So, what's Jesus' answer? Jesus responds with a parable in which the person who stops and helps the person in need is not the person who you would expect. The priest and the Levite, the people who you would think would know the law the best, walk past. The Samaritan who comes from a group that is understood to be an enemy to the Jewish people is the one who stops and helps. So, Jesus' answer to the lawyer's desire to limit or define the parameters of care challenges boundaries that everyone listening would take for granted. Jesus makes it clear that love pushes past boundaries. It is our desire to clearly define the boundaries of love--not his. Every time we draw a line to define who we need to care about and who we need to ignore, a line that indicates who matters and who doesn't matter, we'll discover Jesus standing outside our line, standing with the outsiders, asking us as he asked the lawyer, "So who's your neighbor now?"
That's a powerful lesson--but how in the world are we supposed to implement it? We are limited people with a limited supply of time and money and energy. How are we to handle the unlimited demands we face along our road if Jesus wants to blur every boundary that we might try to establish?
I've sat with that question all week, and I've come to a somewhat uncomfortable conclusion. We can join Jesus in challenging the boundary between neighbor and stranger if we also challenge another boundary which is perhaps even more clearly established: the boundary between ME and NOT ME. We need to stop thinking only of how I can respond to the world and starting thinking about how WE can respond to the world. No one can bandage all the wounds of the world on their own, but we can do so much more when we act together, as a community.
Now, let me be clear. I'm not talking about writing a check to a refugee agency and then crossing refugees off our mental list and never thinking about them again. I'm not talking about donating cans of soup to the food pantry and then congratulating ourselves for doing our part to fight hunger. There are ways we can support the work of other people that completely cut off our relationship to either those in trouble or those offering assistance--and we need to guard against our tendency to act this way.
But there are also ways in which we can act as a WE that actually deepens our sense of connection and relationship to others. I know, for example, that a number of us feel that way about the work of FOCUS, the fifty-year-old organization of Albany area churches that runs the Breakfast Program at Westminster and the food pantry here at Emmanuel. Whether or not we are currently actively volunteering in one of these programs or serving on the FOCUS board, we have a sense of connection to the work of the organization because we support it financially, we house the programs, we know people who volunteer and people who have benefited from the programs. We have a sense of US-NESS with FOCUS that I know I value a great deal. Perhaps you have a similar connection to another organization. Or perhaps you know someone who does meaningful work that you cannot do yourself, but you offer support and encouragement and maybe even some financial support to that person or their organization.
The next time you encounter a person or a group or a place whose needs feel overwhelming to you, take a lesson from the other experiences you've had of US-NESS. Ask yourself how you might connect with someone who is at the front lines of this issue? Is there a way to offer support to that person and/or organization that would build a sense of connection between us? Could I write a letter of encouragement and mail it along with a financial contribution? Could I commit to praying for that person and their work as well as the people they serve? Perhaps even our act of noticing the hurt of the world, the moment I spend grieving over the sadnessess and cruelties of the world somehow make those who suffer less alone in their suffering.
Friends, it is tempting to read this parable as describing two types of people in the world--those who help and those who don't give a damn. It is probably much more accurate to say that this parable is about each of us, or all of us. We are people who yearn for limits to the demands that love makes. We are people who stop and help--but we are at least as often people who walk past. And in the end, we are also the one who has been beaten and is lying on the side of the road. We have been helped, time and again, in big and small ways. We have been the recipients of grace--God helped us in ways that we could never help ourselves. As the old hymn says, "O to grace how great a debtor, daily I'm constrained to be!" When we remember this--when we see ourselves as givers and receivers, as healers and as wounded--our hearts become more expansive and love wins.
Thanks be to God!