The sermon for week July 10, 2016
The Great American Road TripLuke 10:25-37
Summer time, when our world is bathed in green. The time of cook outs, swimming pools, and the great American Institution of the summer road trip.
We took a summer road trip out west to the Bad Lands of South Dakota when I was 12. We wound through that part of the Mid-West, stopping at gas stations and eating at road side diners. Each stop was an adventure. I loved that trip.
John Steinbeck told a story in his novel The Grapes of Wrath of one such diner in the 1930s off Route 66. Al was the quiet short order cook. Mae was the hostess. Mae was the business mind. She had it figured out. Tourists were a joke. Steinbeck writes, “They'll drink a five-cent soda and crab that it ain't cold enough. The woman will use six paper napkins and drop them on the floor. The man will choke and try to put the blame on Mae. But truck drivers. That's the stuff.” (Steinbeck 156) Good spenders and if you treat them right, you've got repeat business.
In Chapter 15, Steinbeck writes how there were two truck drivers having a cup of joe in the diner when “a 1929 Nash sedan pulled wearily off the highway. It was packed with stuff, pots and pans, and such to the ceiling of the back seat, a mattress and a folded tent on top. The car pulled up to the gas pumps and a dark-haired, hatchet-faced man got slowly out. Two boys slid out from the backseat and hit the ground.
“The man asked Mae, 'Can we get some water, ma'am?'
“A look of annoyance crossed Mae's face. 'Sure, go ahead.' She said softly over her shoulder, 'I'll keep my eye on the hose.' The man unscrewed the radiator cap and ran the hose in. After filling up, he drank thirstily. The man took off his dark, stained hat and stood with a curious humility in front of the screen of the diner. 'Could you see your way to sell us a loaf of bread, ma'am?'
“Mae said, 'This ain't a grocery store. We got bread to make san'widges.'
“'I know, ma'am.' His humility was insistent. 'We need bread and there ain't nothing for quite a piece, they say.'
' 'F we sell bread we gonna run out.' Mae's tone was faltering.
'We're hungry.' the man said.
'Whyn't you buy a san'widge? We got nice san'widges, hamburgs.'
'We'd sure admire to do that ma'am. But we can't. We got to make a dime do all of us.' And he said embarrassedly, 'We ain't got but a little.'
Mae said, 'You can't get no loaf a bread for a dime. We only got fifteen-cent loafs.'
From behind her Al growled, 'God almighty, Mae, give'em bread.'
'We'll run out 'fore the bread truck comes.'
'Run out, then, dammit.' said Al. And he looked sullenly down at the potato salad he was mixing.
“Mae shrugged her plump shoulders and looked to the truck drivers sitting at the counter to show them what she was up against. She held the screen door open and the man came in, bringing a smell of sweat with him. The boys edged around him and then went immediately to the candy case and stared in-- not with craving or with hope or even with desire, but just with a kind of wonder that such things could be.
“Mae opened a drawer and took out a long waxpaper-wrapped loaf. 'This here is a fifteen-cent loaf.'
The man put his hat back on his head. He answered with inflexible humility, 'Won't you—can't you see your way to cut off ten cents worth?'
Al said snarlingly, 'Dammit Mae, give 'em the loaf.'
The man turned toward Al. 'No, we want ta buy ten cents' worth of it. We got it figgered awful close, mister, to get to California.'
Mae said resignedly, 'You can have this for ten cents.'
'That'd be robbin' you, ma'am.'
'Go ahead—Al says to take it.' She pushed the waxpaper loaf across the counter. The man took a deep leather pouch from his rear pocket, untied the strings, and spread it open. It was heavy with silver and with greasy bills.
“'May soun' funny to be so tight,' he apologized. 'We got a thousan' miles to go, an' we don' know if we'll make it.' He dug in the pouch with a forefinger, located a dime, and pinched for it. When he put it down on the counter, he had a penny with it. He was about to drop the penny back into the pouch when his eye fell on the boys frozen before the candy counter. He moved slowly down to them. He pointed in the case at a big long sticks of striped peppermint. 'Is them penny candy, ma'am?'
Mae moved down and looked in. 'oh—them. Well, no—them's two for a penny.'
'Well gimme two then, ma'am.'
“'Thank you, ma'am.' The man picked up the bread and went out the door, and the little boys marched stiffly behind him, the red-stripped sticks held tightly against their legs. They leaped like chipmunks over the front seat and onto the top of the load, and then they burrowed back out of sight like chipmunks. The ancient Nash climbed up on the highway and when on its way for the west. From inside the restaurant the truck drivers and Mae and Al stared after them.
“A truck driver said. 'Them wasn't two-for-a-cent candy.'
'What's it to you?' Mae asked fiercely.
'Them's a nickel apiece candy,' the truck driver said.
'We got to get goin',' said the other truck driver. 'We're droppin' time.' They reached in their pockets, they put down their money. And got up and started to walk out. 'So long' they called.
Mae called, 'Hey! Wait a minute. You got a lot of change acomin'!'
'You go to hell,' said the first truck driver and the screen door slammed.”
The beloved community broke into that diner. Al and Mae were reluctant good Samaritans to the driver of the Nash sedan. In the beloved community, fifteen-cent loaves cost ten. Nickel candy cost two for-a-cent. Imagine if the many only wanted one, how would you give half-cent change? And the truck drivers witnessed this and paid to make up the difference, moved by the compassion... they steel themselves against it. “You go to hell.” they say, lest they get sentimental.
Aren't we doing that so often? So busy, moving here and there. So caught up that we often miss the inbreaking of God's beloved community. We're like the priest and the Levite in today's story. Yet we need to be like the Good Samaritan. Someone who helps, who gets the beaten man to safety and pays enough so that the man will be taken care of. And then the Good Samaritan says he will pay more on his way back through. He is the one unguarded in the story. The one who shows the most mercy and the best love of God and love of neighbor.
On my great American road trip to the Bad Lands, our trip ran through Sturgis, South Dakota. The sound and fury of thousands and thousands of bikers were in town for the famous summer biker rally. All that black leather and skulls and such is a bit intimidating for a twelve-year-old, his little sister, his mom, and his grandparents.
Along that dusty stretch of highway, our van got a flat tire, and we pulled over to the side of the road. Some bikers immediately pulled over too. The van was jacked up and the tire was off before the van had come to a complete stop. “You got a spare in there ma'am?” one biker asked my mom.
They put on the spare and lowered the van and gave us directions to the next service station to buy a regular tire. If my memory serves me correctly, my sister and I even got some candy from one particular burly and intimidating bearded biker.
Good Samaritans are everywhere. Showing mercy. Showing their love of God through the love of their neighbors. Sometimes it's reluctantly. Sometimes it's unforced, like the rhythms of God's grace itself. Compassion is infectious. If someone starts it, indeed others will follow. Al started compassion rolling in the diner, Mae caught it, and the truckers, too. The bikers of my road trip, too. Their compassion hangs with me to this day.
Good Samaritans are unexpected. They don't look like those we expect, and they come from unlikely places. Yet I believe they are everywhere. People often guard themselves against it, have all sorts of reasons why they sort people into categories where they will stay... until someone comes along and changes it. Like a Samaritan showing amazing compassion and breaking out of the box Jesus' society placed him in. That society said Samaritans were good for nothings following a bastardized version of the Jewish faith. Instead Jesus said they're capable of following God's two greatest commandments: The love of God and love of neighbor, just as well as anyone.
Love of God and love of neighbor. Not just our literal neighbor. It's easy to help those of the same race, class, and social location. It's easy to be helped by them as well. Harder to be helped and to help those who are quite different from us. We gather each Sunday to remind ourselves and train ourselves to be on the lookout for ways to make the world a better place by showing compassion. To be Good Samaritans to others. These times are hard to find. They are inconvenient as they will mess up your schedule, make you late to your appointment, yet that kindness will stick with someone. Like a twelve-year-old Luke peering out at you through the window of a van.
Compassion is indeed infectious.
And we need compassion. In the wake of two more black men shot dead. 115 black lives taken this year (Riotta). The shootings of police in Dallas. Who needs our help right now? Who is lying broken and bleeding on the street, and what are we going to do? I love driving. I love being on the road. I’ve been pulled over a few times, I’m not proud. Mostly I’ve been alone. Once I was in the car with my friend Mao, who is Colombian. It was a very different experience. Not a good one. Mao didn’t get the benefit of the doubt. I think my presence helped de-escalate things. But this isn’t always the case. Driving while Black is still an issue. Racism is very much alive in 2016. We have been reluctant to address this issue as a community just as I have been reluctant to address it from the pulpit. There are feelings of guilt, of being overwhelmed, and we have the privilege to ignore it because we don’t know what to do. We are walking by just like the priest and the Levite. What if we stopped? What if we considered that you can have a different experience just due to the color of your skin? What if we listen to stories not our own, to listen to the pain of grieving families, and to say “this isn’t right.” Compassion is infectious, I hope we don’t steel ourselves from it. For the sake of black lives, for the sake of our future as a nation, for the sake of our children and their future, may we stop, come near and be moved with pity. To bandage the wounds, pour oil and wine. To put them on our own animal and bring them to a place of safety, to show mercy. Show mercy.
I’m calling all peacemakers! It’s time to broker peace! It is hard and holy work. You don’t have to choose between black lives or police lives. You can be heart broken by both. You can work for both.
Yes. Good Samaritans are everywhere. I bet some are in this room. I bet you have a few stories that would blow our minds. I bet... I bet there are Good Samaritans in our midst even now. They don't like you'd expect. They look... yes... I see it now from this vantage.... They look a lot like you.
Riotta, Chris. Alton Sterling Is the 114th Known Black Man Killed by Police in the US in 2016 *Philando Castile would be 115
Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. Penguin Classics, New York, New York. 1992. Pages 159-161