May 6, 2018

Image of God, IV: The Kindness of Children

Passage: Luke 10:25–37

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he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’ —Luke 10:29

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you read it?” The Lawyer answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

I decided on the Good Samaritan passage for Children’s Day because it contains within it one of the memory verses our Third Graders recite together every Children’s Day.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. But, there’s something just too familiar about the Good Samaritan. We know exactly what to expect.

It is a common metaphor, not just in religious circles, but across our culture, so much so that the image of the Good Samaritan is embedded into our common vocabulary. Laws are written about it. Centers and hospitals are named after it. We can easily pass through this story unphased. But what if all the characters in the Good Samaritan were children? What if the parable sounded more like this.

Jesus was talking to a crowd of people in the park, and a student, having heard the greatest commandment asked, “who is my neighbor” and Jesus replied: Sears School let out one day, and everyone headed home. It was a beautiful day. Two of the fourth-grade class bullies ran ahead. A girl, riding her bicycle, slowed down when she approached the tunnel that goes under the train tracks. Suddenly, the two bullies jump out from behind the bushes, knock her off her bike, steal her backpack and bicycle, and leave her with skinned knees and a twisted ankle. A few kids walk by and see her there, but they are all running late to soccer practice, so they run on ahead. Another kid sees her there but is in the middle of texting a friend to find out where to meet for soccer practice and was too distracted to stop. Finally, a kindergartner walks by, sees the girl, and stops. She helps her up onto her own bicycle, goes to the nearest house where she knows her friend’s mom is home. She asks the mom to take care of her, leaves her own bicycle for the injured girl to use, and tells the mom that she’ll be back soon to make sure the girl is okay. Who then, was a neighbor to the girl who was attacked by bullies?

It breaks your heart, yes? A story that has become so rote, so familiar that we can hardly hear it, opens up in a new way when you turn it on its side. It highlights the human potential for cruelty, the ways bullies can emerge so quickly on the scene of any school community, the way friend groups decided in unspoken ways that ignoring someone’s suffering is okay, the way our cell phones further isolate us from one another, pushing someone else’s suffering to the margins because we are too distracted. The kindness of the kindergartner on the one hand, and its opposite.

As part of an essay contest called “This I Believe” based on a popular radio series from the 1950s, a student named Cullyn described this very thing: the kindness of children on the one hand, and its opposite. The passing period at school can be the worst part of any middle school students’ day, Cullyn said. It’s just a small fraction of the day, but it can be heart-wrenchingly cruel. Wanting to help others see just how hard it is to walk the hallways everyday, Cullyn and his friends did an experiment for one week. All week long, during passing periods, they counted the negative remarks made about someone’s gender, sexuality, or race. They counted over 1,000 insults—just during passing periods that week. This doesn’t include the kinds of things that might have been said via text or social media. This was just one week, during that short little sliver of time between classes. One thousand insults. They weren’t all directed at one person, sure, but the sheer number of rude, derogatory, hurtful, humiliating comments just he and his friends overheard gives you a sense that the hallways of local schools can be difficult to navigate even for the most confident of students. Cullyn, even at such a young age, said that because he has seen how cruel the world can be, he believes in tolerance and respect, and most importantly, acceptance.

In another essay for the same essay contest, another student, Carly, says the same thing another way: Choose love. The Good Samaritan chose love. He could have easily passed by like everyone else, but he chose love. Loving your neighbor is a choice. Choose love, Carly says.

A Vietnam vet named Miles recalls a time when a child chose love, when kindness came his way unexpected. There were no “Welcome Home” parades in those days for the men and women of war. No welcoming crowds eager to celebrate their return. It was an unpopular war in a complicated time, and so Miles was quietly returning home. In uniform, on the final leg of his journey, Miles was on a domestic flight from California to Texas, sitting in a window seat trying to go unnoticed. Without pomp and circumstance, a little girl walked up to him, no older than 10-years-old, and handed him a magazine to read on the flight. As she gave him this small gift, she whispered “welcome home.” But Miles never found out who she was, why she whispered to him “welcome home,” if maybe her mom had given her a nudge to be kind, or if maybe her dad was in the war, too, because as soon as he heard those words, “welcome home,” he had to turn away to weep. It was the first kindness he had in a very long time.

Choose love anyway, Carly says. “Welcome home” the girl says. It is a Samaritan shaped story, yes?

Jacob, from Trussville, Alabama just outside Birmingham is not yet out of high school, but remembers a time when kindness became healing. Jacob had been injured, and though his parents and doctors and friends had all been kind to him, it was still lonely and hard in the long days after surgery. For several weeks he was in a wheelchair, and one day, he was with his family in a crowded sporting goods store. Almost everyone in the store was ignoring him. It was hard to get through the crowd with his injury and his wheelchair. Then suddenly, from within the crowd, a man he’d never met began to clear a way for him, making a path through the people, telling them to clear the way. This small random act of kindness, this small something that cost nothing, became everything to Jacob: a reminder that kindness is a choice, and a single act of random kindness everyday can change the world.

In a famous essay called “I and Thou” Martin Buber, a 20th century Jewish philosopher-theologian said that as soon as we encounter another person, we are touched by a breath of eternal life. Martin Buber might say, in response to Jacob, that in such random acts of kindness, we encounter the life-changing God. Martin Buber was the theologian behind this sermon series on the Image of God. Martin Buber makes this radical claim that we can see the image of God in one another whenever we encounter one another. When the bullies of the world are taking charge, hiding in bushes and knocking over kids on bicycles, spreading insults during passing periods, or when we just simply ignore one another, then we are ignoring God. We are trampling on the image of God. We are hurting not just ourselves, but God, whose love is at work within us.

Thomas G. Long, a biblical scholar that Jo Forrest was lucky enough to spend a week studying under, lived a century apart from Martin Buber, but in an essay on the Good Samaritan, invites Martin Buber to be his conversation partner, imagining—if they had been alive at the same time—how their conversation would go.

Tom Long: Our relationships are never quite as straightforward or saccharine sweet as Hollywood movies make life out to be, nor are life-encounters quite as cheery as our sermon illustrations seek to portray them to be. Basically, it’s harder than it looks to be the Good Samaritan.

Martin Buber: Yes, life is always a little more boring and tedious and predictable. Life is always more burdened by habit and cultural norm and distraction.

Tom Long: Not only that, but our neighbors have jagged edges. It’s just not safe to always love your neighbor the way maybe we should. It’s risky, maybe too, risky. But, with God all things are possible.

Martin Buber: True. When we encounter another person, we meet God, and so, whenever we see a neighbor in need, we are not alone. God is there. Pay attention: to await these kinds of moments of kindness, to watch for them, to let them be your saving hope.

Tom Long: Maybe, it is God all along who goes into the ditch to lift us out. Maybe it is God-who-dwells-within the Good Samaritan, who picks us up out of the ditch, bandages us up, and helps us to mend.

Martin Buber: Yes, when we encounter another person, we are opened up to encountering the divine. But, it doesn’t happen in beautiful, serene mountain top moments, and at first, these kinds of encounters don’t seem holy. It almost looks as if nothing heroic is happening at all. But it is, here, in this tiny sliver of time, that grace happens every day.

With God, all things are possible, Jesus says. With God, all things are possible. Maybe that is why the greatest commandment begins “Love God” and ends “Love your neighbor.” It takes an act of God to truly love our neighbor. God is the one who goes into the ditch to brush off the little girl’s skinned knees. God is the one who says “welcome home” to the Vietnam vet. God is the one who pushes the wheelchair through the crowd. God is the one who chooses love. God is the one who chooses kindness. God is the one who lifts us up first, so that we can lift up one another.

May it be so. Amen.