(A Meditation for an Intergenerational Baden Powell Sunday)
This morning a line in the Scout promise, “I promise to help other people at all times,” or a line in the Guide promise, “I will take action for a better world,” could well be the Scripture texts for this morning’s service. So many times before when I have read this story of the Good Samaritan, I have missed out on one important detail: Jesus is talking about what it means to be a good neighbour.
We know who our neighbours are. Just like in this story, neighbours are those people we come across as we journey through life. They might be those who live on our street, they might be those with whom we work or go to school. Like the wounded man, they are the people whom God places in our path. Think for a moment – who this past week has God placed in your path? Maybe it was a friend, or a family member, or a stranger, or someone totally surprising? Who did God put in front of you this week?
What is being a good neighbour? The Scouts and Guides have it right. It is helping other people and working for a better world. Simone Weil, the French philosopher around the time of the Second World War, said, “The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through?’” Perhaps being a good neighbour is putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and seeing what we can do to make their life better.
When was somebody a good neighbour to you? What did they do that was so special? One of the things I remember from scouting is the stories that our leaders would tell us as we gathered around the campfire, quite often at the beach late at night as we were staring up at the stars. So, as we gather around this metaphorical campfire this morning, I want to tell you some stories that left an impression. As I tell these stories, I hear echoed the words of Jesus that Joe read this morning, “Go and do likewise.”
The first story is about a friend whose name was Shirley. We grew up together. We were in the same Sunday School class and then the same classes at High School. While at university, it was discovered that Shirley had cancer. On Christmas break, a group of us went to visit Shirley who was in the middle of chemo treatments – a hard thing for twenty- two year olds to deal with. Shirley was spending most of her days just dealing with the effects of the chemo. A couple of months later, my father suddenly died. Shirley was one of the first people at the funeral parlor for the visitation. When I told her I was surprised she was there she said, “I figured that because you were living away now, that most of your friends couldn’t be here, but I could be here to give you some support.” What a neighbour. Today Shirley is the head nurse at one of the major Toronto Hospitals. She still is a good neighbour to hundreds. Good neighbours are those who are there for us when we need their presence.
My first parish was in a small town in Ontario on the edge of the Canadian Shield. It was a two year assignment, and I had the time of my life. While visiting in the community, I learned how to milk a cow, shear a sheep, drive a dog – sled team, race a skidoo, eat puffball mushrooms, tell which Jerusalem artichokes were ready for digging….and I learned that there is some horrible poverty in Canada. There was a mother living with her newborn son in an unheated garage…and there were many families who didn’t have money for food for their children. One such family sent their children to the Sunday School. A couple of the women always made sure that coffee hour after church was more like Sunday brunch so these children would have a good meal. Through my visits, I got to know the parents of these children. The father confessed he was uncomfortable because he wasn’t married to their children’s mother. At the age of 36, he had had a stroke which had left him quite paralyzed, and it was difficult for him to speak, especially when he felt pressured, so he felt he couldn’t get married because he couldn’t stand up in church in front of a crowd of people and say his vows. I suggested that they could be married in their living room with their two best friends as witnesses, and so a month later they were married while the rest of their friends waited outside in the yard. Afterwards, there was a party where people brought food, a real wedding banquet. I left the party early to go to a meeting in the next town. When I got home late that night, I discovered that all of the food that was left over from that party was in my chest freezer. That couple needed the food way more than I, but that was their generosity -that was their gift. The original Scout Promise that Baden Powell had in 1908 had the line, “I will do my best to help others, whatever it costs me.” Being a good neighbour is not counting the cost to one’s self.
The final story is about a lady named Mary. I got to know Mary when she was 106. I asked her how she kept such an alive and attentive mind. She told me that in her mind she planned and threw dinner parties. She drew up the menu, cooked the meal and had wonderful table conversation. Two years later, it was an honour to perform this woman’s funeral. At the tea afterwards, Nellie, one of the church’s elders came up to me and said, “I have a story to tell you, and I haven’t been able to tell it until today.” Mary’s husband had served in the First World War. He was one of the young men who lost their lives in the trench warfare. He left Mary with two young children and no pension. Mary became a seamstress to support her family. They lived in a small apartment over the stores not far from the church. Mary was known throughout the community as a loving, kind, generous woman. She would never charge for her work on a girl’s high school graduation dress. She always felt that it was her gift to the community. During the Depression of the 1930’s, things were tight. The church was having a special fund- raising drive to purchase coal to heat the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. At that time, Nellie, the woman telling me the story, was a young girl. Her parents sent her with a twenty- five cent piece to take to church. On her way, she lost it. To her, that was a lot of money. She didn’t know what she was going to do. She went to Mary’s apartment in tears and told her what had happened. Mary reached into a jar on the kitchen shelf and pulled out a quarter, money from the jar, and gave it to Nellie. Nellie told me that she realized years later that that was probably food money for Mary and her children and yet she gave it away. With a twinkle in her eye, Mary said to Nellie, “You are not to tell anybody about this until my funeral”. Sometimes being a good neighbour means acting without fanfare or reward. No one was thanking the Good Samaritan for rescuing the wounded man.
I want to leave you this morning with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. when he preached on this passage of Scripture: “The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But…the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” May we all be good neighbours.