Very Near To You

SJF • Proper 10c 2007 • Tobias Haller BSG
Grant, O Lord, that your people may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.+
In his short story, “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl,” Ray Bradbury describes what happens to a man who loses track. It begins with the main character of the story standing over the body of the man he has just murdered. No one else is around, no one has seen him come, and no one is likely to see him leave. Still, he realizes he has left traces of himself in the form of fingerprints all around the living room. And so he finds a cloth and begins wiping the arm of the leather chair, and then the top of the table; and, of course, the glass from which he had enjoyed a drink. Then there’s the door knob of the library — and he’d better do the one on the inside as well. And the front door, both handles. And did he touch the edge of the doorway when he came in? Give it a rubdown just in case. And that marble-topped table in the foyer — did he set his hand on the top of it when he passed by?

He sets to work, polishing everything he can think of — even things that thinking should tell him he hasn’t touched; but he can no longer be sure. He even polishes the fruit at the bottom of the bowl which gives the story its title, and completely loses himself in his effort to wipe away any evidence that he had been there.

When the police finally arrive — I don’t recall the detail from the story; perhaps because the murdered man has missed an appointment — they enter the house and find it gleaming. Every surface is polished within an inch of its life. Martha Stewart would be put to shame! Then, hearing some noise from upstairs, they find the murderer, frantically polishing coins from a chest in the back corner of the attic.

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Now, what, you may ask, what does this have to do with the Good Samaritan? Well, the resemblance begins as our gospel passage begins, when a lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life — that is, how do I escape the human predicament of guilt and wrong, just like the man who tried to wipe away his fingerprints? Jesus throws the question right back at him, essentially saying, “You’re the lawyer; what does the law say?” And the lawyer quotes the well-known Summary of the Law — and it is good to note that Luke puts this summary, a combination of two verses from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, into the lawyer’s mouth. Jesus approves this summary, but then the lawyer wants to justify himself and asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

It is a reasonable question for the lawyer to ask. Does it mean neighbor literally — the person who lives next door? Or could it mean people who live as much as two or three doors away? Or anyone in the neighborhood? And just where is the edge of the neighborhood — where does Fordham become
Kingsbridge Heights or edge over into Mosholu or Norwood? Is it just this borough, or the whole city? Do I just wipe my fingerprints off the doorknobs and the glass, or do I have to go rummaging in the bottom of the fruit-bowl, or climb the ladder to the attic?

Seen in this way, the question is, What is the limit of one’s responsibility? In my sermon last week I mentioned Marley’s plaintive statement, “Mankind was my business.” But Scrooge, even after his reclamation, didn’t try to save all of mankind, or even everyone in the good old city of London! He helped Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim, and many others — but not everybody. And the people in the Titanic’s lifeboats, who didn’t row back to rescue other passengers, weren’t expected to rescue everybody — but they could have rescued somebody.

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In his response to the lawyer, Jesus shows by way of a parable the kind of response he expects. We know nothing else about the Good Samaritan apart from his being a Samaritan and being good. All we know is that unlike the priest and the Levite, he doesn’t ignore the man he comes across on his journey. As far as we know, he’s not an ambulance driver or a homeless shelter coordinator or a social worker going out searching for injured or homeless people to see to their needs. He simply responds to the needy person who is actually in his path. And that’s important — not in his neighborhood (after all, he’s from Samaria) but in his path. The presence of this wounded man on the road is an opportunity for ministry — a ministry rejected by the priest and the Levite, even though they were on the same path, but an opportunity for ministry to which the Samaritan responds. And he is the one about whom Jesus says to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”

The message to us, then, is that God will provide us with opportunities for ministry, too; and when those opportunities arise, God expects us to take advantage of them. We are not to cross to the other side and pass by.

While God will give us such opportunities to do good, God does not expect us, either as individuals or as a congregation, or even as an entire church, to solve all the problems of the world — to wipe out to world hunger, and poverty, and disease — on our own. But God does give us the opportunity to feed someone, to help someone who is down on his luck, and to offer care and comfort to someone who is sick. We cannot on our own solve all the problems of the world; but individually we can help to address the needs of other individuals — and they are our neighbors no matter how far away they live. And in the long run every generous act will contribute to the net balance of good in the world, even the smallest act of kindness adding to the blessing. And enough grains of sand will eventually make an island. Enough good done will go far to making the world a better place.

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There is an old story that is such a cliché I’m hesitant to retell it, but it is so to the point that I will. There was a man who would walk up and down the beach every day picking up stranded starfish on his path, starfish that had washed up beyond the reach of the waves, and gently toss them back into the sea. A person who watched him doing this for awhile said to him, “Why are you wasting your time throwing those starfish back into the sea? There are thousands of them! What difference do you think it makes?” The man looked down at the starfish in his hand, paused for a moment, then tossed it into the sea, and said, “It makes a difference to that one.”

The simple fact is, God doesn’t ask the impossible of us. God doesn’t expect us to save the world — he already did that almost 2000 years ago, and he did it while nailed to a cross. But God does expect us to love him and our neighbors; and to show that love by treating all whom we encounter with that same respect and care that he showed for the whole world. God does not give us more than we can handle. His law of love is not incomprehensible or far away — you don’t have to go running up to heaven to find it; you don’t have to cross over to the other side of the sea to hear of it; you don’t have to rummage in the bottom of the fruit-bowl or climb the rickety ladder to the attic to find it. The law of love is very near to us, in our mouth and in our heart. And our neighbor, to whom God wills we show that love is near us in spirit and in fact.

Whether that neighbor is the person sitting next to you in the pew, a person to whom a kind word or smile might just make their day; or whether that neighbor is a child in Dabalo parish 85 miles north of Dodoma in Tanzania on the other side of the world — a child who now has a new school uniform and shoes, and books and pencils and paper, and a good breakfast every day, because someone here in this parish chose to help — God gives us neighbors aplenty to love and serve as we love and serve him. The law of God is not too hard — it is very near to us, as near as our nearest neighbor, as far as our hearts can reach.

As the wonderful old Ghanaian hymn says, “Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white, neighbors are nearby and far away. These are the ones we should serve, these are the ones we should love. All are neighbors to us and you. Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.”

Grant, O Lord, that your people may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.+