Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Least Likely Suspect

Here's this morning's homily. I found this image of the Good Samaritan, a piece called "The One Who Showed Mercy" by Christopher Koelle, at 12 Stone Art, an online Christian art gallery. You can see earlier versions of this piece here, and can read the artist's statement here.

The Gospel is Luke 10:25-37.

Longtime blog readers will recognize the man I call "Walter" in this homily as my friend A. I'm not sure why I don't feel comfortable using his real name, especially since anyone who already knows him will recognize him from this description. I guess it's a habit ingrained from the hospital, and reinforced by the fact that I haven't asked his permission to talk about him, and want to protect his privacy (a precious commodity indeed for people who live on the street).


Many of you have heard the story of my trip home from Diocesan Convention in Ely several years ago. I stopped for lunch in Eureka, only to discover that I’d locked my keys inside my car. I called AAA, who said it would take them three hours to get there, but that I should stay with my car, because if they arrived and didn’t find me, they’d leave again.

I was parked on the main street. My car sports bumper stickers that say CHRISTIAN, NOT CLOSED-MINDED and FEMINISM IS THE RADICAL NOTION THAT WOMEN ARE PEOPLE. I also have a planet-Earth decal. My car was in front of a shop. The shop window displayed a t-shirt bearing the word WRANGLERS. According to the shirt, WRANGLERS is an acronym for “Western Ranchers Against No-Good Liberal Environmental Radical So-and-Sos,” although “so and sos” was actually another s-word, one I can’t use in church.

The good people of Eureka were, shall we say, somewhat less than welcoming. A policeman came by, looked at my bumper stickers, and then, smiling, offered to get me back into my car by smashing one of my windows. I told him I’d wait for AAA. Small children trooped by on the sidewalk, pointing at me and my car and laughing. I was apparently the most entertaining thing that had happened in Eureka in months. I began to wonder if the lead headline in the newspaper the next day would be, “Dumb Liberal Locks Herself Out of Car.”

Next to the t-shirt shop was a small, decaying wooden building -- a shack, really -- with dusty plastic flowers in the window. When I’d been sitting next to my car for perhaps an hour, the door of this structure creaked open. The man who emerged, approximately eight feet tall and half that wide, sported a leather vest, a vast assortment of ominous tattoos -- think skulls and swastikas -- and a bad case of meth mouth. In other situations, I might well have crossed the street to avoid him. To my alarm, he lumbered up to me, but my fear was unfounded. “Honey,” he said, “I’m a four-time convicted felon, and I’m sure I can help you get into that car.”

He couldn’t, but he called a locksmith he knew, who unfortunately didn’t have the right key mold for my Ford Escort. My new friend apologized for not being able to help me, and then said, “But listen, if you need water or a phone or just to get out of the sun, knock on my door.”

Who was my neighbor that afternoon? Not the policeman, not the cute children, but the least likely suspect: the convicted felon, as despised by many people in our own day as Samaritans were in Jesus’ time. In first-century Judea, Samaritans were considered unclean, contemptible, the lowest of the low. But in the parable we just heard, the Samaritan is the person who doesn’t cross the street to avoid trouble, as the respectable priest and Levite do. Instead, he approaches the half-dead crime victim, going out of his way to offer help and hospitality.

I suspect this is no coincidence. People who’ve been despised know what it feels like to watch people cross the street to avoid them. They know what it feels like to need help and not receive it, because other people are afraid of them. They know what it feels like to be laughed at, to be threatened by public servants who should be assisting them, to be ignored. And so when they see someone else in this position, it’s easy for them to ask, “What would I need if I were in that situation? How would God have me help this person? How can I love this person as much as I love God and myself?” In New York, where I used to live, it was axiomatic that in any given subway car, the people most likely to give spare change to panhandlers were the ones who looked the least wealthy themselves.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that we love God both when we offer help to our fellow humans and when we allow ourselves to receive help, even from the least likely suspects. It tells us that if we try to justify ourselves by defining any given group of people as beneath our notice or concern, as not-neighbors, we have put our own eternal lives in peril. It tells us that when we try to avoid these people, keep them at arm’s length, or marginalize them, we are breaking God’s law: we are not loving our neighbors as ourselves. Would we feel loved if someone crossed the street to avoid us after we’d been robbed and left for dead?

If we haven’t had such experiences ourselves, following God’s law requires empathy and imagination, the willingness to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. And because this parable is about how we live in community with other people, it is as inescapably political now as it was two thousand years ago. In first-century Judea, it asked its audience to put themselves in the shoes of such despised groups as Samaritans, lepers, and women. In our own day, here in the United States, it asks us to put ourselves in the shoes of such despised groups as inmates, illegal aliens, and the homeless. Can we imagine ourselves in those shoes? What would we need if we were in prison, crossing the border, living on the streets? How could others help us? What would make us feel loved?

There are many answers to these questions, and thoughtful people from every position on the political spectrum have come up with a variety of solutions. But for those solutions to remain faithful to God, we must first and foremost be willing to befriend and advocate for strangers in ditches, even when we incur a price for doing so. The Good Samaritan refused to abandon the crime victim, even when his care became expensive and time-consuming. As Christians, we follow Jesus, whose refusal to abandon his ministry led him to the most costly sacrifice of all.

In the summer, I often spend a week or two in Berkeley, taking a course at the Pacific School of Religion. Over the years, I’ve become friends with a homeless man -- I’ll call him Walter, although that’s not his name -- who’s staked out a corner near Holy Hill. He’s a science fiction fan, and we share several of the same favorite authors. I’ve given him books. He’s given me books. I’ve bought him meals, and he’s graciously invited me to share them. He sweeps the sidewalk in front of the stores on that block to earn a bit of money, and sells used books for the same reason. Everyone knows him: storekeepers, local residents, students from the many seminaries in the area. He’s part of the neighborhood. Merchants give him food. Students give him books to sell, or buy his books, sometimes for much more than their cover price. “I’ve been looking all over for this one, Walt, so I’ll give you twenty dollars for it!” On a recent day trip to Berkeley, I took my husband to Holy Hill specifically so he could meet Walter, about whom he’s heard many stories. I gave Walter a signed copy of one of my own books, and some money; he gave me a blue glass heart he’d found in someone’s trash.

My editor in San Francisco recently got married, and Gary and I went to the wedding. One of the other guests was a man named Tom who runs a science-fiction bookstore in Berkeley. I’ve bought books there for Walter. Tom told me that the Berkeley City Council is trying to pass a measure that will fine shopkeepers for keeping “illegal campsites” if homeless people sleep in front of their stores. They’re trying to enlist business owners in clearing the dangerous and undesirable from Berkeley neighborhoods.

Tom, furious, wrote a letter to the City Council telling them that the homeless people in his area don’t cause crime. They prevent it. They know who belongs on the block and who doesn’t, and they’ve stopped thieves trying to break into his store. They’re Good Samaritans. Tom has been a good neighbor to them in turn, and now the city wants to fine him for his kindness. His bookstore is already struggling. If the measure passes, he won’t be able to pay the fines. He’ll have to choose between evicting his neighbors or losing his business. Like Jesus in the garden, praying for God’s cup to pass from him, Tom prays that the measure won’t pass.

I worry for Tom. And of course I worry for Walter, up on Holy Hill, and for the many business owners who’ve come to consider him a friend and neighbor. I can only hope that they’ve also spoken out against the measure, that they’ve written letters to the City Council on behalf of the man who faithfully sweeps the sidewalk every day. And I hope and pray that the many divinity students who’ve befriended Walter see Christ in him, as I do, and that in whatever action they decide to take, they’re guided by the parable of the Good Samaritan.


1 comment:

  1. Maybe there's a third choice for Tom: civil disobedience.

    Refusal to pay the fines. Advocacy for social justice.

    The root of the problem isn't the homeless loitering. It's the homelessness, the ostracism and society's active oppression to bring prolonged suffering and early death to the most unlovely in order eliminate unsightliness.

    -offered from a reference point of being treated as a "Walter".


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