Dallas On My Mind

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on July 10, 2016.

I have Dallas on my mind this morning and a powerful gospel story, The Good Samaritan, to deal with, so let me tell you some stories of my own and see whether they come together.The Good Samaritan

Many years ago I set out with a friend to drive from Long Island where we lived to Wichita, Kansas, to attend a conference. You may ask, “Why did you drive? Were there no airplanes?” Well, yes, there were airplanes, but I guess they were less commonly used, or maybe we thought driving was cheaper. Whatever the reason, we drove. We stayed overnight in a motel in Pennsylvania and got to Wichita about dinner time the next day – or was it the third day? I don’t remember. Dinner was in the hotel dining room and we were late but we found a table and we sat a long while before we were served. My friend, a black priest, said, “Seems like everyone else is being served first.” It did seem that way, but sometimes it does seem that way in a restaurant so I thought nothing of it. So we went to the conference and afterwards we set out to drive home. We were somewhere in Missouri when we stopped at a motel for the night. I went in first with my friend just behind and I asked about a room for two. “Sorry,” said the manager, “but we’re full. Maybe you can find a place down the road.” Well, we did find a place down the road, but I’ve stayed in a lot of motels before and since and never, before or since, been told they were full. Maybe they were full, but I realized I had no way of knowing and I realized my friend lived with that uncertainty daily.

I remember another day when my friend stopped at my house to visit and arrived irate because he had been ticketed by a policeman on the short drive from his house to mine essentially for driving while black.

When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor,” he told a story. As I think about the events of this last week in Baton Rouge and Minnesota and Dallas, I find myself telling stories and reflecting on how hard it is to know my neighbor, to understand my neighbor, to walk in my neighbor’s shoes, or drive in my neighbor’s car and know that I may wind up dead if I have a broken tail light.

Let me tell you another story. Much more recently, a new black member of the small congregation I was serving in Connecticut set out to follow other parish members to a meeting in a nearby town. They were driving a pickup truck but he was driving behind them in a beat-up, old black Cadillac that belonged to his mother. They were driving at the same speed on an open, country road when a state trooper stopped him, not the vehicle he was following. He had his license and fortunately nothing came of it, but why was he stopped and not the people he was following? These things happen in America – frequently if you are black; seldom if you are white. Our neighbors often experience this country differently than we do.

Another story: Many years ago, I was rector of a parish on the South Shore of Long Island: Christ Church Lynbrook in Nassau County, a suburban parish about a half-hour out from Penn Station. It was a very middle-class community and people had worked hard to get there. Some of the men held two jobs to help pay the mortgage. They worked hard to own a home in a good community with a good school that would be a good place to raise children. To the north of Lynbrook was the village of Malverne, a wealthier community, and to the northeast was West Hempstead, a primarily black community, formed long ago as a place where the servants could live who worked for the wealthy people in Malverne and Garden City. Now, school district lines on Long Island bear little relationship to the village borders. The “Lynbrook school district,” so-called, included two-thirds of Lynbrook but not all of it. There was another school district called School District 12,  carelessly referred to as the “Malverne school district,” which included the northeast corner of Lynbrook, which was in the parish I served, as well as most of Malverne and West Hempstead. About one third of the parish I served was in school District 12 but not the church or Rectory.  So School District 12 contained parts of three communities and, as a result, there were three elementary schools, one in each neighborhood, but there was only one high school serving the whole district. Now what that meant, of course, was that there were two elementary schools in which children were white and one in which they were black, but they all went to the same high school.

About 10 years before I was called to be Rector of Christ Church Lynbrook the Supreme Court handed down its famous decision in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education which said that segregated education is inherently unequal and that schools designated specifically for black children prevented them from gaining an equal education and that could not continue. It wasn’t long before parents in West Hempstead began thinking about their own situation and brought a suit against the Malverne Board of Education in which they said, “Our children are not receiving an education equal to that in the two other schools and therefore when they get to high school they can’t keep up with the white children.” It was not segregation by law, de jure, as in the South, but segregation de facto. No law established it, but it was there and the result was equally unfair. The local school boards refused to change so the black parents appealed eventually to the state courts which agreed with them and established for the first time in New York State the principle that a segregated education is an inferior education even if, as was the case here, the segregation was not established intentionally. The court ruled that the school district would have to assign children on a random basis to the three elementary schools and provide buses to get them from their neighborhoods to their assigned schools.

The result of that was a series of challenges and counter challenges that went to the courts. White parents and black parents formed groups and hired lawyers and year after year one side or the other side would win or lose and first one side and then the other would protest and appeal and boycott. Now all this had begun before I got there, but I was there when the white parents had won the latest appeal and the black parents had called a boycott. They said that their children would not go to school at all until something was done and meanwhile they were calling on local institutions to provide space where their children could be cared for during the day with temporary classes and programs. I remember suggesting to the vestry that our parish hall space might be available and I remember that the most support I got for that idea during the ensuing discussion was from the senior warden who didn’t speak at all.

I remember going to protest meetings as an observer and sitting with a parishioner who had worked and saved to buy a house a block from the school for his three children and was now understandably upset to think that his children might have to ride a bus to a school in another neighborhood. Why should he ask his children to sacrifice their convenience to overcome a housing pattern they had nothing to do with? Why should they inconvenience themselves for their neighbors.

It was during this time that the Sunday gospel was the one we read today: the story of the Good Samaritan who stopped beside the road at risk to himself to help a man of another ethnic group who was lying there wounded. He sacrificed his convenience to deal with a situation he had nothing to do with. I remember preaching that day about that parable without any specific reference to the issue at hand but hoping that somewhere in that story was the way forward, hoping that somehow all those involved, black and white alike, could find the courage to stop considering their own advantage and see the humanity of the others. There was no way everyone could win, but perhaps there was a way that all those involved could begin to risk their own security and welfare for the sake of the broader needs of the human community. I hoped we could overcome our fears sufficiently to try to listen to our neighbors.

Well, I spent six years in that community and they were still fighting it out when I left. But the more I tried to be helpful the more it seemed to me that what the Gospel had to offer – what the Bible could give us – was not specific solutions to specific problems but stories like the story of the good Samaritan that held the potential to become our story, held the potential to reshape a community not by laws and orders and coercion, but from inside human hearts.

Here’s another story:  a number of years after the events in Long Island I went to a conference in Hawaii. It was a conference of Episcopalians engaged in ministry with people of Asian background, priests and people from congregations in this country of people from Japan and Korea and the Philippines and Vietnam and China and India. I was involved tangentially in a ministry to Japanese people in the New York area and that was my excuse for a trip to Hawaii. One night during the conference each ethnic group was asked to produce a skit based on one of the parables and a group from Karala State in India did a skit about the good Samaritan. In their skit a man was set upon by robbers and left to die beside the road. A school teacher came by and a lawyer and a Christian priest and they all walked quickly past on the other side of the road, afraid that the same robbers might also attack them. But then, as they acted out their skit, a communist came by and the communist stopped and picked the man up and took him to the next village and cared for him.

When the skits were over each group was asked to discuss their performance and the reasons for it. So the group from Karala State explained that for a very long time the Christian church had stood there and preached compassion and help for the poor, but people had continued to be poor and hungry and very little had changed. But then, they said, the Communists were elected to govern and things at last began to change. The poor were given land and the hungry were fed and human needs were being met. Just as the Jews of Jesus’ time saw no good in the Samaritans, so the Christians in Karala State saw no good in the Communists, but when there was need it wasn’t the Christians who responded but the despised and rejected Communists. Perhaps, they said, we need to see beyond labels and understand that God can work through many agencies to help those in need. Perhaps even a communist can be my neighbor.

I remember on another occasion visiting Manila in the Philippines and seeing in the oldest part of the city signs describing what happened there during the Japanese occupation: prisoners were sometimes put in cells that had been designed by the Spaniards centuries before in such a way that the water would come into them at high tide and drown the prisoners and carry out the bodies when the tide went down. I remember hearing somewhere that the Japanese military administration of Singapore in those years was very different because the Japanese general in charge was a Christian and had learned to see even the enemy as his neighbor. I remember discussions with our Filipino hosts about the difference between a society formed by Christian ethics and one formed by Confucian ethics because the one is an open system that has a principle about the other, the outsider, the neighbor, and the other is a closed system prescribing duty towards those within the system but saying nothing about those outside.

Back at the earliest level of the biblical story there is a command to love one’s neighbor as oneself. In good-samaritanthe Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible, we read that, “there shall be both for you and the resident alien a single statute . . . you and the alien who resides among you shall have the same law.” For Jews and Christians it is one of the most fundamental principles. But what a difference there is between a principle and a story. The principle applies to every human situation: school districts on Long Island, poor people in Karala State, the homeless and hungry in Syria and in San Francisco. If we act on it, it makes a difference. The Gospel is supposed to make a difference, and it may impact our convenience. It may impact the taxes we pay and the candidates we vote for. But a law or principal is a wooden thing: stiff and unwieldy and hard to bring to bear when my interests are at stake. A story is different: often I can see myself in the story and think about how I might act in a similar situation.

Black Americans and white Americans are neighbors living all too often in the same community but in different worlds, with many of the same hopes, but very different fears. I’ve been thinking about the policemen who shoot black people and wondering what fears they have, what would lead them to murder someone they had never met. What life experience, what fears, what terrible insecurity, what unresolved anger, would lead anyone to shoot another human being in cold blood?  But the police who act violently are also our neighbors and further evidence of how hard it is to understand our neighbor, reach out to our neighbor, break down the walls that separate us from our neighbors.

I’ve been telling stories because I think the gospel story gives us a way to begin. On the one hand there are principles and on the other hand there is a story, a story familiar to every Christian and many non-Christians as well. I wonder if any single story ever told has had as powerful an impact on Western civilization as the story of the good Samaritan. Hospitals are named for him, laws are passed on the subject, and news reports tell us frequently about good Samaritans who helped beyond the call of duty.

I went on line yesterday and found a story filed in the last 24 hours: “LAWRENCE, Kan. — A heartbreaking story of survival is unfolding after a Good Samaritan discovered an infant abandoned inside of a Lawrence trash compactor early Thursday morning.” The newspaper automatically called the man a “Good Samaritan;” everyone knows what that means.

This is a story that has the power to bring a principle to life and shape who we are. It’s a story that needs to be our story. It’s a story that needs to be something we live out in our lives. It’s a story that needs to be a command we have heard so clearly that we ourselves will go and do likewise.

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