A number of years ago, I led a youth retreat where I preached on the Good Samaritan eight times in four days. Having studied the text deep and wide, I wrote a modern version of the parable to share with the students in worship. It was a good exercise for me--and I thought you might find it helpful as well--to remember that compassion really can transcend any boundary.
Then the president of the Woman’s Missionary Alliance stood up to test Jesus. "Jesus," she said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (And everyone around got all quiet and listened because frankly, they were surprised that she had to ask such a question. Everyone knew that! For heaven’s sake, those words were printed on the city light poles, on banners at the local schools, and on the brand new welcome sign down at the local lake. It was so important, that they’d made it the town mission statement. What was she up to?)
And Jesus said to her (without any sarcasm in his voice at all), "Well, sister, what is our mission statement? How do you interpret it?"
She answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
Jesus responded, "Yep! That’s it! Just do that, and you will live a life that glorifies God not just now but for all eternity."
She had another question, though. "But Jesus. Exactly who would you say is my neighbor?"
Jesus said, “Let me put it to you like this:
"A business man was in the habit of exercising after work. At the office, he’d change from business attire to gym clothes, place his valuables in his backpack, and walk over to the downtown YMCA for a work-out before going home. One night, as he headed back to his car over near his office, he was jumped from behind and mugged. They stole all his credit cards, his iPhone, and his laptop. Then, they beat him and left him--broken, bloody, and unconscious--to die.
“Now by chance, the senior pastor of World’s Biggest Church was leaving a ministry meeting in the city and happened to walk right by the unconscious man. The thing was though, he still needed to update WBC’s website and Facebook page before he could go home; he hurried on to his office, asking Siri to remind him to look into the matter later.
“Likewise, the leader of the homeless ministry happened upon the injured man; of course, any other time, she would have stopped. (She would have!) But that night, she was on her way to B-SUB (Bible Study Under the Bridge), and she knew there would be a big crowd waiting on her. She kept walking.
“Then, an Afghan immigrant came along. When he saw the man, his eyes filled with tears, and he knelt beside the man. He noticed the guy’s t-shirt: torn and bloodied, it’s graphic and slogan spewed hate. No matter, the Afghani carefully removed his own head scarf, folded it, and used it as a pillow for the man’s head; then he took off his cloak and carefully draped it over him. The immigrant called 911, remained with the man while awaiting the EMT’s, then followed the ambulance to the hospital. Once they arrived and he saw that the man was getting the appropriate care, the Afghan immigrant stopped by the front desk. He gave them his credit card information to cover the man’s medical expenses and his cell phone number just in case there were any additional needs he might address.”
So, Jesus asked the woman, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who was mugged?”
And the woman said, “Um, well, in that story, I guess it would be the . . . uh . . . the one who showed him mercy."
Jesus said to her, "Mercy. That’s it. Mercy.”
“I’m going to move over here by Ruby so she can hear me,” Edna said as she stood, stepping over so her voice would project directly into her friend’s ear.
“How’s this?” she asked. “Can you hear me OK, Ruby?”
Ms. Ruby noticed us watching her and piped up, “Beg your pardon?”
I was attending the monthly meeting of a Woman’s Missionary Union roundtable at my church, and Ms. Edna was sharing the prayer calendar which included a brief devotion. These particular women have been meeting together for longer than anyone can remember. They share prayer concerns, pray for missionaries, take on mission projects, enjoy snacks provided by the hostess of the month, and just spend time together. I’d guess their average age is upwards of 80.
As I basked in their traditions, I was taken back to my days in Girls in Action (the children’s version of WMU). The ladies spoke of Lottie Moon, and immediately I pictured the diminutive missionary who changed the face of Baptist international missions. I recalled also the women who taught me about Lottie Moon and other missionaries. I saw their smiling faces as they welcomed me into a community of belonging.
They were some of the same ones who greeted me at GAs on Wednesdays, taught my Sunday school class, led crafts at Vacation Bible School, or bandaged my scrapes at church camp. They, and others who came after them, taught me that church is a place where children are loved and friendships are made. They taught me other stuff too, of course. I learned about Adam, Noah and Abraham; Paul, John and Peter. I learned about the widow who offered Elisha a home and the one who offered Jesus her all.
Those lessons grew with me, as I read and re-read familiar stories, gaining deeper understanding over time. I’m grateful — so grateful — for the hours those volunteers put in with me and my peers. People like Elaine Hill, Marilyn Thompson, Eva Spear, and Vi Keeter gave me a picture of godliness that I readily recognize in others today.
It’s that kind of godliness I saw around that table of women last week. Like the saints in my own history, these women will be quick to tell you they’re just “sinners saved by grace.” Indeed, they — we — are human beings who trespass against others even as we fail to forgive those who trespass against us. So yes, they are imperfect; but these women take church seriously. In addition to being at church every time the doors are open, “Lord willing,” they show up around that table, month after month, year after year, decade after decade. For a couple of hours each month they share snacks and stories, recipes and remedies, hopes and hurts. They pray together — for each other and for people they’ve never met — and over time they’ve developed a community of faith that looks a little bit like the Kingdom of God.
What about you? What pictures of the Kingdom have you seen lately?
*This piece was first published on December 14, 2014, by Baptist News Global (formerly Associated Baptist Press). I'm delighted to be associated with this great organization and am honored to be among the gifted writers and thinkers featured there. Watch for my BNG column, appearing on the second Monday of each month at baptistnews.com.