A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It was a most glorious moment when that team of women won the Women’s World Cup.  I cannot forget the ecstatic glow on the face of Megan Rapinoe.  Yes, glorious it was.  But what brought a catch in my throat and a tear to my eye was the chant that soon broke out in the stands.  “EQUAL PAY.  EQUAL PAY.  EQUAL PAY.”  We are definitely in a new era, and none too soon.  These women have a better winning record than the men.  Their crowds bring in more money.  And had the winners of the FIFA Cup been men, each player would have received a $1,000,000 bonus instead of the measly $200,000 that each of the women received.  EQUAL PAY INDEED!

Now you’re maybe thinking, “This is all great, Fr. John.  We loved the game too, BUT what does it have to do with the story of the Good Samaritan?  And, you’re right, it’s time for a talk about equal pay.”

Well, let me tell you the connection.  You know well the story of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus is confronted by a self-serving member of the legal profession, seeking to score points.  He asks Jesus what must be done to be saved?  To inherit eternal life? It’s not like he was really interested in the answer.  It was a test to trap, to embarrass.

Jesus throws the question back at him, asking, “What does scripture say?”  The lawyer is sort of forced to answer Jesus because everyone now gathering around the exchange knows the correct answer.  They had been taught it from the time they were knee high to a grasshopper.  “You must love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus gives him an “A,” for he has answered correctly.  Prize student.  Go to the head of the class.

But unwilling to let well enough alone, the lawyer ploughs on.  “Well tell me this, smarty pants.  Just who IS my neighbor?”  Ego just doesn’t know when to quit.

And true to form, Jesus resorts to a story.  There was a businessman on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho.  He was set upon by highway men who beat him senseless and stole everything.

While the poor fellow is lying in a ditch by the side of the road it happens that a member of the clergy should pass by.  The pastor, seeing the bloody mess, quickly steps to the other side of the road, hitches up his robes and scurry’s on by.  “I’m late, I’m late, I’m late for a very important date. No time to say hello, good bye.  I’m late. I’m late. I’m late.”

Next came a Levite, one who leads the singing of the services.  Let’s just say the choir director, to make this easy.  He also notices the businessman and likewise, crosses to the other side and hurriedly passes by, not wanting to get his robes soiled.  Don’t want blood on the music.  Besides, he’s a stickler for starting choir practice on time.  Late comers absolutely drive him nuts.

Finally comes by a most despised fellow.  He’s got tats from face to hands.  His clothes are ragged and he smells like he’s coming off a three-day binge.  He hasn’t had a bath since who knows when.  He sees the traveler from some distance and wonders what this is.  From afar it looked like some wounded animal.  As he draws near, his eyes flood with tears and he begins to run towards the man.  Amazing, he’s still breathing.  He knows this man.  He’s been this man.  He knows “down and out.”

Well, you know the rest of the story.  This despised fellow bandages up the bloody wounds and cleans up the businessman as best he can.  At the nearest Motel 6 he arranges for the inn keeper to feed and take care of the man’s needs, depositing what reasonably might handle the charge.   He then sets off, assuring the manager that he’ll take care of any further expenses on the flip side.

“NOW.  Who is the real, genuine neighbor?” Jesus demands to know.

And might that also be our question concerning last week’s soccer match?  When over eons of pay discrimination, who was the real neighbor to these glorious women who just won it all?  You already know in your hearts.  It was the crowd.  Their fans: all chanting EQUAL PAY to the high heavens.  These are the real neighbors, not just to these women, but to all women who have suffered the indignity of having been treated as second class when it comes to equal pay for equal work.  Why is it we pay teachers so little?  We don’t value their work.  And yet we entrust the future of our nation to them every day.  Why?  Because they’re mostly women.  Guys, it’s time to wise up.

Too often, we so individualize the gospel that we fail to take in its fulsome meaning.  Yes, sometimes it is a single individual that comes to the aid of the beaten down and oppressed, the victim if you will.  But it can also be a collective action as well.  It can be a whole bunch of great neighbors.  The sort you’d want in your neighborhood.  The kind that make it a beautiful day.  Every day.

Who cannot read the past news coverage of the horrors that Jeffrey Epstein perpetrated over the years against vulnerable girls, some as young as fourteen years old and not be repulsed?   And who cannot read of the sweetheart deal arranged by the federal prosecutor, recently the Secretary of Labor, Alex Acosta, and not be disgusted?  The miscarriage of justice in Florida for Epstein’s young victims astounds.  It is an offense against the Almighty and all that is decent.

It is a member of the media, you know, the FAKE news, who brings the healing light of exposure.  It was a single reporter who had the smelled the rot and brought it into the sunlight.  She was the Paul Revere of the keyboard, alerting her readers to the stench.  And she had the persistence to follow the whole sorry trail in all its lurid detail.  She was the Good Samaritan to these now-grown woman.  She brought it all to light that justice might be done.  Her truth-telling created the safe space for healing to begin – to allow these women to come forward.  To allow for a final reckoning for the perpetrators and those who covered up.  This reporter was indeed the neighbor, the real McCoy.  For all of us, thank you Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald.  You are the sort of neighbor I want in my neighborhood.  You make it a beautiful day in the neighborhood of America.  I want you writing for my morning paper.

No, she’s not a despised stranger or considered to be a heretic as was that original Samaritan – though some in the White House most likely considered her to be such.   But, as in the original story, Julie K. Brown, through her dogged reporting, has been the source of blessed healing, every bit as much as that original Samaritan in Jesus’ story.

Love of God and Love of Neighbor.  It is through faithful action, not correct belief or right theology, or any theology at all for that matter, that wholeness comes.  It’s through righteous action that we enter the realm of God – eternal life.  Rabbi Beerman used to say, “My marching feet are my prayers.”  It’s what we give our lives to that counts.

There is no right moment.  She who tarries may miss the appointed moment forever.  As my friend Vern was fond of saying, “Timing is everything.”  As in the Nike commercial, “Just DO it.”  And Julie K. Brown? – Boy howdy, did she ever do it!

That blessed restorative neighbor might be the collective action of sound public policy.  Remember President Reagan’s famous quip against government programs?  What were his “nine most terrifying words” according to him? — “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  Well, he was wrong.  FDR showed us the power of government for the good — for a godly purpose if you will.

In fact, the government, that is, our collective action, is often what is required to bring healing in the face of systemic injustice and racism.  It is the collective will of an entire people that assumes the role of healing neighbor.  Collective action that brings restoration.

There was a heart-warming article in last week’s NY Times with the headline, “A ‘Second Chance” to Choose a Diploma Over a Rap Sheet.”  It is about Maurice Smith, a convicted murderer who spent twenty-seven years behind bars for a murder committed when he was nineteen.  And, today, now he is a member of Goucher College’s graduating class of 2019.  Yes, there he is in his cap and gown, as proud as any of the hundreds of thousands of graduates all across America who walked across that storied platform to receive their diplomas. 

And how did this amazing feat come about?  It was through the efforts of a Republican Senator in Texas, Kay Bailey Hutchison.  A REPUBLICAN!   Yes!  We can work together!  Sometimes. 

It was Senator Hutchison who proposed broadening the restrictions that had been placed on Pell grants.  Through her efforts a most remarkable coalition was brought together:  far-right conservatives, the religious community, folks from the ACLU and the very liberal Center for American Progress.  This coalition managed to undo a provision in the original Pell grant authorizing legislation that had kept college from anyone with a rap sheet. 

Growing up in Harlem, Maurice Smith had spent his youth working on an increasingly long record for drug possession.  Though he had shown ability in high school, he was basically unmotivated.  And even when he had achieved the second-highest score on a state test, his vice principal accused him of cheating, only further diminishing his low self-esteem.

In 1992 Maurice had shot and killed a man breaking into a friend’s house.  He was sentenced to life, though with the possibility of parole in some distant future.  Maybe.   He spent the next years mostly sullen and angry.  In and out of solitary confinement.

President Obama introduced what became called “Second Chance Pell” in 2015.  Goucher Prison Education Partnership and the work of some sixty other colleges unlocked the door to advancement for some 12,000 prisoners.  From those serving short sentences to those on death row, the door to a future opened.  Maurice grabbed the second chance.  Before long he was reading Immanuel Kant on ethics and studying precalculus.  He loved reading Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” aloud with another inmate.

Looking back on the classes she taught, one professor, Dr. Nina Kasniunas, remarked that students like Maurice “made the pat downs, metal detectors, lack of technology and other constraints of teaching in prison worth it.”  Such students “reminded me of the power of what we do.”[1]

Maurice Smith graduated with a 3.79 grade point average.  And, with a wide smile beaming across his beautiful face, he crossed the stage and received his diploma, pumping a fist as the announcer was proclaiming, “Maurice Smith, magna cum laude.”

Maurice was released from prison two months before his graduation and presently works the graveyard shift in a Johnson & Johnson warehouse.  He reconnected with an old childhood girlfriend whom he has since married.

A person with Mr. Smith’s background we could have previously considered a throw-away – human trash.  Resentment, anger and hostility would have been our guiding attitude.  But you know the results of resentment.  It’s like drinking poison and then waiting for your enemy to die.  But what is dying is America.  As my friend in West Virginia, Sheriff Larry Palmer, says, “John, we cannot arrest our way out of these problems.”  With no hope for restoration, the only results one can expect is bad neighborhoods from coast to coast.

Just who was Mr. Smith’s neighbor?  A whole lot of people, most of whom he will never meet.  Neighbors are those who push for sound public policy and a justice system that restores.  The neighbor may be an orderly in a nursing home who, keeping vigil into the wee morning hours, clasps the hand of a dying man.  He may be that brave young boy on the playground who rebukes a bully.  The neighbor may be a medic in a war-torn land far away.  She may be that persistent doctor who struggles for days on end to properly diagnose a mysterious and obscure illness.  It may be anyone, or an entire assortment of strangers.  As we used to say in the Fair Housing movement: “Good Neighbors Come in all Colors.”

There was a traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho who fell among robbers and was left beaten half to death.  Many others passed by, ignoring the plight of the bloody wretch.  Finally, approaching, a stranger, his heart in his throat, rushed to him.  His very soul went out to the man.  He carefully bandaged his wounds and set him up on his own donkey.  At the nearest inn he provided for the man’s care, telling the innkeeper to spare no expense.

Now, who was the neighbor?  In your heart you have already answered Jesus’ question.  Your answer burns in your soul like a hot coal.

Now, go and do likewise and you, too, will pass into the mystery of eternal life.  Your answer, lived daily, is where the living Christ will meet you.  Amen.

[1] Erica L. Green, “A ‘Second Chance’ to Choose a Diploma Over a Rap Sheet,” The New York Times, July 9, 2019.

Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9, Colossians 1:1-14;
 Luke 10:25-37

Year C, Proper 10 July 14, 2019
Preached at St. Francis Episcopal Mission Outreach The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

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