July 14, 2019
There is a sweet little movie out I liked so much I saw it twice. It’s called “Yesterday” and it is a love letter to the music of the Beatles. It goes like this. Some cosmic wires get crossed and all the world’s lights go out for twelve seconds. On a pitch-black street our hero Jack, a young musician, is knocked from his bicycle by a bus and sent flying through the air—a shock that throws him out of phase with the rest of the world for those twelve seconds. When the lights come back on after Jack comes to, the whole universe has changed except for him, it seems. He is going to learn that for the world it now is as though the Beatles hadn’t happened. Jack finds this out when his friends give him a new guitar to replace the one that got busted in his accident. He unwraps the guitar and they ask for a song. “A great guitar deserves a great song,” Jack says. He sings “Yesterday.” Moved to tears, his friends think he wrote it. So we are given to imagine a world that hasn’t heard the Beatles. Jack will show the world what it's been missing.
Approaching Jesus, a lawyer asks him:
Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
John, the Beatle, wrote a song inviting us to imagine life without that question.
“Imagine there’s no heaven, its easy if you try.”
John was right about that. It is easy to imagine there’s no heaven, “above us only sky.” Oblivion is easy for us to wrap our minds around. For a few seconds, we empty them and think of nothing. Conceptually, heaven is a tougher nut to crack. Our brains were made in time for use in time, not to grasp eternity. About the best we can manage is thinking of eternity as a very, very long time. But, as St. Augustine pointed out, time itself is one of the Eternal God’s creations. Eternity somehow transcends before and after. God sees tomorrow just as clearly as he sees yesterday. It is hard to imagine our life in that—our hope is mind-blowing.
Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
The question seems audacious. Who are we to inherit eternal life from God?
But Jesus doesn’t treat the lawyer’s question as ridiculous. He engages in a little back and forth that culminates in his story of the Good Samaritan. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he was set upon by thieves, who beat him, stripped him, robbed him, leaving him half-dead. Of all the stories ever sung or told, this one is high on the list of the world’s most cherished. What “Yesterday” was to Lennon and McCartney, the Good Samaritan is to scripture. Its had a little longer ride atop the charts.
Let’s play for a moment with John’s imagined world without religion. The cosmic accident occurs again, the lights around the world go out, the bus hits Jack, who wakes up in a hospital. His friends come by and ask him how he’s doing. He says: “I’m all right, I think, thank God.” The friends are puzzled. “Thank who?” they say. “God,” Jack says perplexed. “Who dat?” Later, Jack googles God and nothing comes up. It autocorrects to Cod and the screen fills up with North Atlantic fishing scenes and old pictures of Kennedys sailing boats on the Cape. So we imagine no Jesus, Moses, Buddha or Muhammad, or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. As it was in Narnia, winter always comes but never Christmas. Imagine our world where we had never heard the story of the Good Samaritan. That would certainly have changed my monthly drive to Little Rock many years ago.
As a young priest, I would drive once a month or so from Van Buren, on the Oklahoma border, to Little Rock for meetings at the bishop’s office. That was a 2 ½ hour trip each way on Interstate 40. Back then, on almost every entrance ramp there would be someone with a backpack holding out his thumb. They were always single men and they looked rough. I would think about the Good Samaritan and wonder: Should I pick him up? A little self-debate would start. “Love your neighbor as yourself” one side of me would say for the affirmative. In college in New England, I had hitch-hiked some—mostly local rides to colleges nearby, but some cross country. It took a while but I always got rides. Do unto others as others had done for me, that voice would say. Another internal voice of mine would come in with a rebuttal. Don’t be foolish, it would say. These men aren’t college students. Hitchhikers can be dangerous. A friend of my father’s had been killed by one. Besides, I need some time to think about this meeting I am going to or my Sunday sermon. 2 ½ hours of highway peace and quiet is a valuable commodity. Or, heck, how about a little me-time? I don’t get enough of that: I could turn off in Alma and pull through McDonald’s for a large cup of coffee, black, and two biscuits, bacon, egg, and cheese, then cruise down the highway feeling fine, listening to Mozart or the Grateful Dead. So I had three options: work, rest, or stop, roll down the window and offer: “I can take you as far as Little Rock. Jump in.” Once a month, that debate would happen.
I usually settled on a compromise. I would pick up a rider either coming here or going back, but not both ways. “One for them and one for me.” That way I loved my neighbor and myself I reckoned. I would usually pick up the rider in the morning and get that over with, for Jesus. If John Lennon had had his way, there would have been no debate at all. The Good Samaritan was a song stuck inside my head. I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to.
After several years of that, this particular debate was settled for the negative, based on two developments. One was the arrival of a baby. Now my safety felt more important to me than it had before, and so did me time. The other factor was a scary ride. I picked up a man coming back from Little Rock. By Conway, I could tell he was psychotic. Near Morrilton, he told me that on bad days he was homicidal. “Do you know what I mean?” he asked. I was pretty sure I did and let him off in Russellville. (From Morrilton to Russellville I let him pick the music.) My wife and children needed me alive, more than someone on I-40 needed me to offer them a lift. The Priest and the Levite who didn’t stop in Jesus’s story may have had thoughts similar to mine. I often see myself in them. I think many of us do, who have this song inside our heads.
The story poses a question: Who is my neighbor? Its remarkable answer is: it can be anyone, even a Samaritan. My neighbor is the one who shows me kindness, who may be from an unfamiliar, even normally unfriendly, tribe. Am I a Palestinian? My neighbor may be Jewish. Am I red? My neighbor maybe blue. The parable stretches the imagination, requiring us to look for the good beyond our tribe. Then it shows us what to do in concrete terms: “Go and do likewise.” Follow the Samaritan’s example. There’s the rub. Hitchhikers are the tip of an enormous iceberg. In a world of great need, how do we follow that example? That question follows us throughout our lives.
In the book of Amos, the Lord calls a plumb line to the prophet’s attention. A plumb line is a pointed weight hanging from a string. By gravity, it points straight down. If I am sinking a post to build a fence, the plumb line shows me when I have it standing straight up. Loving my neighbor as myself, doing for you as I would have you do for me, is a moral plumb line that the bible gives us, both Old Testament and New. Anything off that line is crooked.
Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher, used logic to reach a similar conclusion. Kant wrote a book with the title Religion within the Bounds of Reason Alone. He didn’t imagine life without religion, but he did aim to prove the religious truth that all the world could see and agree on. He knew that would have to include a moral plumb line. We need that because, in human life, Kant saw, crooked is the norm. “From the crooked timbers of humanity nothing straight has yet been built,” he said.
Kant put his mind to work and arrived at this conclusion: a person is “morally good . . . so far as he [or she] acts on an impersonal principle valid for others as well as himself.”
I can’t tell what’s right or wrong based on whether it is good or bad for me. I can tell by putting you in my shoes, and you in mine. Would I have you do as I am doing? That is a plumb line. Kant’s religion within the bounds of reason seems a lot like religion within the bounds of scripture, as the lawyer quoted it to Jesus.
But the story of the Good Samaritan takes us into moral territory reason hadn’t charted. Mercy goes beyond the plumb line. Even people made from crooked timbers can display it. God displays it too. The world was in a ditch—beaten, bruised. In Christ, God the Good Samaritan doesn’t pass us by. He joins us in the ditch with food and medicine. What must we do to inherit eternal life? In the gospel, it is God’s wanting us to have it that shines through. That makes “How could we blow it?” more the question.
With retirement approaching, I am in the mood for looking back and taking stock. Judging by the measure of the Good Samaritan, it is hard to say how well I’ve measured up. If God gives grades I could imagine getting anything from A to F, depending on the day. As far as helping people out of ditches is concerned, I am afraid I may be below average for a priest. My days are planned out and I am not good with interruptions. On the street when people ask for help I usually say no. I have a reason for it, but every time I do I hear that durn song. It made me fill my wallet up with meal cards for McDonald’s, so I would have a way of saying yes I could feel right about. Those are small scale moments. On the large scale questions—stewardship of money, talent, time—I am not apologizing, but I am not bragging either. God is merciful and I’ll take my stand on that.
This could be bragging, but I am going to say it anyhow. In a way, my life these last forty years was responding to an interruption—the call to ministry was that. I didn’t know it when I started, but the church was in a ditch of sorts. The world was too. We are all still in that ditch where we need the gospel badly. I guess I handle large scale interruptions better than I do street encounters.
In my office, there is a display of the churches I have served and schools I’ve gone to. Most of the churches and even some of the schools were in ditches, pretty beaten up, at the time I went there, answering a call. I guess that has been my niche in ministry.
As those of you who were here remember, Trinity Cathedral was in a ditch of sorts when I came along not quite six years ago. When I heard someone—it sounded like Ret Tucker—holler help, I kept walking for a few yards, then thought twice and turned around.
That gives me another alternative to think about—the one where Rett hadn’t hollered help, or I hadn’t listened and just moved on. All of this just vanished—like in “Yesterday,” and none of us the wiser.
For me, the loss would have been almost too much to contemplate. I’d rather have lived without the Beatles.