SCRIPTURE READING: But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied. "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, 'Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more your spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
A few weeks ago I was thinking about your annual meeting of the DUSTOFF Association and got to wondering how many of your group could claim law and being attorneys as their profession. For better or worse, lawyers, much like politicians, do not often fare well in our topics of conversation these days. Lawyers are often the butt of our jokes and on occasion we doubt their motives and sincerity. The legal profession just does not seem to fare well in our country. How often have we commented about how important it is to have a good lawyer when one faces a serious crime. Famous trials in the last few years make us wonder about the veracity of such a notion.
I want to think more highly of such folk but I confess I have joined the jokes about lawyers. I suppose I should be more sympathetic because in today's culture clergy do not fare much better. Maybe lawyers and clergy should stick together when the jokes start coming. That is why this parable of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke has always fascinated me. It speaks to lawyers and clergy. But on a deeper level it speaks to much more than those professions.
In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus said to love your neighbor, a lawyer who was present asked him to clarify what he meant by neighbor. He wanted a legal definition he could refer to in case the question of loving one ever happened to come up. He presumably wanted something on the order of the following: "A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one's legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever."
Instead Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyer's response, after Jesus told the story, is left unrecorded.
Over the years I have heard this story of Jesus abused and misused. The priest and the Levite always seem to get bad press. You begin to wonder if these two should have as an epitaph the following: "No priest or Levite is a complete failure. They can always be used as bad examples."
What we often miss in this story is that in no way are they condemned for their actions and the way they chose to live on this day. In fact, by Jewish law, they were doing precisely what was required. Here was a body, a human that may already have been dead and under their law a corpse could make one ceremonially unclean which was forbidden. Think about it. This could have been a set up for a mugging and the risk was great. Why break Jewish law and put yourself at risk? Let's not be too hard on them because they were, after all, acting legally, morally, and ethically on this day. The two chose to live and act within the law and went on there way. They should not be judged harshly.
In the story a third man finally did come along, of course. He looked, really looked, and saw not just a human, a human, a human, but saw what was actually sprawled out there in the dust with most of his life whaled out of him. He bound up his wounds, set him on his own beast, took care of him, and his reward was to go down in fame as the Good Samaritan, which seems to be a marvelously inept title somehow, because just as I prefer to think of the priest and Levite as less than really bad, more just half blind, in the same way I prefer to think of the Samaritan as more than merely good. I prefer to think that the difference between the Samaritan and the other two was not just that he was more morally sensitive than they were but that he had, as they had not, the eye of a poet or child or a saint---an eye that was able to look at the man in the ditch and see in all its extraordinary unexpectedness the truth itself, which was that at the deepest level of their being, he and that other one there were not entirely separate selves at all. Not really at all.
Dedicated, unhesitating, service. Have you heard those words before? Have you seen them lived out by someone? I know DUSTOFF traces its proud history back to Vietnam but I want to you to know the spirit of DUSTOFF has been around for quite a long time. You know who the first DUSTOFF member was? You hear about him in the story I read today. And I want you to know that the spirit of DUSTOFF continues to live each and every time we hear about such stories and episodes.
Last week I was reading some of the snippets of DUSTOFF on the on-line newsletter. I read about the spirit of DUSTOFF in Warrant Officer Hugh C. Thompson, one of your association members. Many of you know his story?
Thompson set down his chopper at a village that up until that time was unknown. When he set down his chopper at My Lai, he angrily confronted a fellow American soldier and saved more than a dozen villagers cowering in a bunker. He then plucked an injured child from a body-filled trench before heading back to his headquarters. Throwing down his helmet, he told commanders what he saw. They ordered a cease fire, the killing ended.
Thompson was approved for the Soldiers Medal in August 1996. As far as I know there was much delay about the awarding of the medal despite the fact that public accounts of his actions have been woven into cadet ethics courses at the U.S. Air Force Academy and in a mock My Lai trial at West Point.
Warrant Officer Thompson set down his chopper on this day and approached the more senior Lt. William L. Calley, and got into a bitter argument with him about what was occurring. Calley would become the only soldier convicted at My Lai. Taking off once again, the crew soon saw other soldiers running toward a bunker where villagers had fled. Thompson put the helicopter down and after telling another officer not to fire at the civilians, the 25-year-old Georgia native walked to the bunker, as a dozen U.S. soldiers stood by. Climbing back into his chopper, Thompson hovered above the irrigation ditch, dropping down once more to pick up a toddler, who was covered in blood and slime but not seriously hurt.
Which of these, do you think, was a neighbor to those in the village and the child in the ditch this day? Each and every time you or I act in such a way we live out the spirit of DUSTOFF: dedicated, unhesitating, service. Why is living in such a way so vital to us, particularly in this age of worry about self above others and the attitude of what's in it for me? What was in it that day for Warrant Officer Thompson or you and I anytime we act as neighbor?
Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. To see reality---not as we expect it to be but as it is---is to see that unless we live for each other and in and through each other, we do not really live very satisfactorily: that there can really be life only where there really is, in just this sense, love. This is not just the way things ought to be. It is the way things are. And not just for one instant do I believe that it is by accident that is the way things are. That would be quite an accident.
It was no accident that the Samaritan came by that way that day. It was not accident that Warrant Officer Thompson flew near My Lai that. I believe with all my heart that there are moments in time, shaped by God, for you and for me. Moments of great joy, or insight, or concern. Moments when we live out the spirit of DUSTOFF where all bets are off and we risk all ourselves; wild, reckless moments when we are truly neighbor to each other. Moments when we realize and know that unless we live for each other and in and through each other, we do not really live satisfactorily at all.
May God grant each of us the strength and courage to live the spirit of DUSTOFF and be neighbors to each other. Grace and peace to you this day. AMEN.