Imagined Scarcity, Abundant Reality, II:
Generosity When It Counts the Most
In September at Kenilworth Union Church this autumn the sermon series is called Imagined Scarcity, Abundant Reality, which as you can see comes from that prayer by Walter Brueggemann’s that Katie recited so beautifully just a moment ago. We’re talking about practicing the habit of generosity.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall 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 your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
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 out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you 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.”
Jesus tells the story of a traveler who is mugged by thieves and left for dead along a notoriously dangerous road. A priest passes by—read ‘Presbyterian minister’—a priest passes by, and when the priest sees the hapless, helpless victim, the priest instantly veers 90 degrees and crosses to the far side of the road.
Jesus tells us, “when the priest saw the victim.” Jesus wants us to know that this detour to the far side of the road is not accidental or incidental but deliberate. The victim was seen and left unassisted.
Next a Levite passes by. Levite was a semi-sacred, ordained office. Read ‘Episcopalian vestryman.’ He does the same thing. After seeing him, the Episcopalian pretends he doesn’t, and crosses instantly to the far side of the road.
I think Jesus wants to get the point across that it isn’t always obvious who’s going to come through when it counts the most. Mr. Rogers says, “Look for the helpers.” But the helpers might not always be who we think they are. Religion is sometimes an obstacle to rather than a vehicle for compassion. Many religious people are so busy loving God they have no love left over for the broken neighbor God has thrust quite literally across their path.
Good jokes and good stories always have three parts. After the Presbyterian minister and the Episcopalian vestryman pass the victim, along come a Samaritan. He rips his own shirt into bandages, dresses the man’s wounds, piles him into whatever passed for a Jeep in first-century Palestine, comes to a screeching halt in front of the nearest Emergency Room, pesters the E-Room doc till he gets some attention, and leaves his American Express card at the front desk with instructions to take care of the victim till he’s well. He left his credit card!
A Samaritan! I am agog. I am aghast. Jesus frames his story to deliver maximum shock value. The common adjective ‘good’ and the proper noun ‘Samaritan’ do not belong together in the same sentence.
As you well know, as far as the Jews were concerned, the Samaritans were personae non gratae. Jews and Samaritans were indeed close kin and near neighbors, but to a Jew, a Samaritan was what is known at Hogwarts as a ‘half-blood,’ a mongrel person, almost but not quite Jewish, Jewish maybe in an ancient sort of way but with a Jewishness that had been diluted over the generations by intermarriage with God-only-knows what kind of Gentile mediocrities.
They didn’t worship at the Jerusalem Temple, they didn’t keep the right kosher, they didn’t know a matzoh from a menorah. Leave it to Jesus to deliberately offend the delicate sensibilities of his own kinfolk. “Along comes a Samaritan,” says Jesus, but to get the lethal point of it, you can fill in your own blank. “Along comes a drug dealer. Along comes a Kim Jong Un. Along comes an antifa guy. Along comes a Border Patrol Agent. Along comes a neo-Nazi. Along comes a liberal. Along comes Tucker Carlson. Along comes Chris Cuomo. Along comes a Buckeye fan.”
You see what Jesus is doing, don’t you? He is trying to maximize our concept of ‘neighbor.’ He is trying to stretch it past all reasonable recognition. He is trying to enlarge our “sacred universe of moral obligation.” He means to say that when it comes to human need, these trivial distinctions we concoct within the human community become meaningless.
“Look for the helpers,” says Mr. Rogers. But who are the helpers? Jesus suggests that it has little to do with one’s religious convictions. Maybe the helpers are those who practice the habit of generosity. Maybe the helpers are those who trust that there is enough to go around—enough money, enough time, enough resources.
The other day I read about a generous life. Have you heard of this organization called “Dog Is My Co-Pilot”? You heard me right: DOG Is My Co-Pilot. A guy named Peter Rork retired eight years ago from his career as an orthopedic surgeon. He gave up a lifetime of medicine in 2012 when his wife died, and he was so depressed he sat in a dark room for months and months.
Then a friend convinced him he needed to get back to his life. Peter Rork loves to fly. He has a Cessna Caravan, so he decided to put that passion for aviation to good use.
What he does is, he flies his Cessna to cities and towns, mostly in California, where the kill rate at the animal shelters is high. In some animal shelters, 90% of the animals are euthanized. In some shelters, only ten dogs out of a hundred ever leave the shelter alive. That’s 1.6 million animals a year in the United States.
So Peter and three other pilots fly to these high-kill shelters, load 150 dogs at a time, and a few cats, into their Cessnas, and fly all over the American West to no-kill shelters in other towns and cities in Utah, Idaho, Montana, where the dogs and cats get adopted into good homes; 150 dogs at a time. Six days a week. They make four or five stops along the way. In the eight years Peter Rork has been flying his mercy missions, he’s rescued 16,000 animals. 16,000.
Peter says: “They say I rescue these animals, but in fact, it’s the animals who rescue me.” Dog Is My Co-Pilot is the name of Peter’s mercy mission. What are you going to do in your retirement? Or what about institutional generosity? What about bureaucratic generosity? Government, for instance, is at its best when it is tending to the injured victim in the ditch at the side of the road. PPP—The Paycheck Protection Program—bandaged millions of broken Americans and delivered them straight to the Emergency Room.
In the last 30 years, 27,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea crossing from Africa to Europe—a thousand a year. So you know what the Evangelical Church of Germany did—the Lutheran Church in Germany, 20 million Christians? They got together and crowd-funded the purchase of a rescue ship. This ship is impressive. It’s 200 feet long. It prowls the Mediterranean searching for people crowded into tiny inflatables. Institutions can be Good Samaritans too.
This weekend I’ve been thinking about what happened on September 11, 2001, 19 years ago. I’ve mentioned Jimmy Dunne before. Jimmy Dunne is one of the managing partners of the investment bank Sandler O’Neill, whose offices were on the 104th floor of the South Tower at the World Trade Center. On that day, 66 of Sandlerå O’Neill’s 171 employees never made it out alive.
Jimmy Dunne, managing partner, was not in the World Trade Center that day. But years later, someone from the New York Police Department called his wife and said, “Is this the home of a Jacqueline Murphy Dunn?” And Jimmy’s wife said yes. “We’re deeply sorry to ask you this, Mrs. Dunne, but did she work in the World Trade Center?”
My wife said, “well, no. No, she’s uh, eleven now, so she was two years old, or three years old.” “She’s okay?” “She’s perfectly okay. She’s in the next room.”
“Well, was her social security number…?” My wife says, “well I don’t know, but I can check.” My wife says “Yeah, that’s her social security number.” “We’ve got her Social Security card…”
So what obviously had happened is I obviously I had had my daughter’s Social Security card in my office—explosion—and that’s the effort that these people took to find what could have been the remains, the only thing left that’s somebody would’ve had somewhere.
And so, just think about that cop, with that humility…I’m not sure if he went to Princeton or Notre Dame, you know, but he dug through all the Dunnes in the metropolitan area, and with care and grace and humility, he found my wife, and he returned Jacqueline’s security card.
Now, it’s not that important that I have Jacqueline’s security card, it isn’t. But it was just the sense to me of okay, you know, this is a beginning, this is something that, we can build on this.
Years and years after the Twin Towers came down, the NYPD was still sifting through that pile of debris for human remains and personal artifacts, until they finally disposed of the ruble and replaced it with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. And then they spent more years and years tracking down the families of who died.
When it counts, when someone is in dire need, it does not matter if you do not know him. It does not matter if you do not like him. It does not matter if you do not speak his language. It does not matter if you have more important things to do. If he is in need, no matter who he is, he is your principal obligation. He is a part of your sacred universe of moral obligation. Practice the habit of generosity when it counts the most.
Phrase from sociologist Helen Fein, in Accounting for Genocide, and is quoted by Richard Rubenstein and John Roth in Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), p. 191.
Sydney Page, “How This Former Doctor Ended up Flying Thousands of Dogs across the Country to Save Them,” The Washington Post, August 31, 2020.
Dawn Araujo-Hawkins, “Christians in Germany Purchase Boat to Aid Shipwrecked Migrants, The Christian Century, September 9, 2020, pp. 17–18.
Faith & Work Initiative, McCormick Hall, Princeton University. David Miller, “A Conversation with Jimmy Dunne: A Catholic Perspective on Ethics in the Executive Suite, Senior Managing Partner, Sandler O’Neill,” March 30, 2011. Recording, 13:45–15:23.