Here’s something funny that happened. Some years ago, I was part of a church that was getting ready for a youth mission trip. One of our practices was to choose a Bible story to carry with us in hopes that we would see our work experience through the lens of this story and that we would see the story in a new way based on our work.
This year we chose the story of the Samaritan who stops to help a man who had been beaten and ransacked by robbers and left on the side of the road. As you might recall, other respectable members of the community see the beaten man and walk by on the other side, but it’s the Samaritan man who stops to help. Jesus finishes the story by saying, “Then you go, and do the same.”
Before mission trips, one thing we’d do is choose the framing Bible story. Another thing we’d do is design T-Shirts for the group. So this year, we chose Jesus’ words to print on them: “ ‘Go and do the same. Luke 10:37’” Only thing was, there was a miscommunication. We opened the box of shirts on the morning of the trip to find that they said, “ ‘Go and do the same. Luke 10:32’”
Now if someone were to go look up Luke 10:32 they would read this: “Likewise, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw the man, walked by on the other side.” Then the shirt read, “Go and do the same.” (Exactly.) Entirely the opposite of the message we intended!
There’s another reason why the shirts are funny. There is something about their message that is disturbingly accurate. You know there will be times when all of us see a person in trouble and we’re not able to stop and help. We will walk by on the other side. This not being able to help or help enough, this is a theme that becomes important to talk about with teenagers on mission trips.
The truth is, even though we human people carry in our own being the compassion of God, even though we live in a nation that offers some social services and “safety nets,” still. There are people who fall through the cracks. My hope for our Lenten series on homelessness is that it will expose these cracks in our community so we can learn how to help the people at risk of falling through them.
Even if you qualify for SNAP benefits, that doesn’t mean you can afford what you need —you can’t buy toilet paper with SNAP! Even if you qualify for Section Eight housing, that doesn’t mean you’ll find an available apartment. And what about all the people who don’t qualify for assistance? And maybe it’s their own fault if they don’t qualify. See if they have broken the law or made unhealthy choices, then maybe we don’t have to feel so bad when they fall through the cracks…Maybe? I don’t know.
Part of growing in maturity is facing reality without flinching, so as much as we are moved by the Spirit to stop and help, the truth is, there are practical concerns. If you’re talking with teenagers, this will take some explaining. Hunger and homelessness are complex systemic issues of injustice; we can’t just show up in matching T-Shirts and solve them. We all have our own lives to live which come with things like car repairs, and taxes, and dental work, and laundry.
This means, part of being a well-adjusted adult in our world is living with a chronically-conflicted conscience. Yes, there really are people in trouble. Yes, there really are times when it is necessary to walk by on the other side. You might feel a sharp pang in your soul, but look, we can’t help everyone. There are practical concerns.
Today our scripture reading comes to us from Deuteronomy which is the last book in the set of five books that make up the Torah or the Law. All through the Torah, we can trace the story of the Israelites and God struggling to be in right relationship. The covenants are made, and sometimes broken, and made again. What I love about Deuteronomy is we don’t just hear the legalistic specifications of covenant keeping. Instead, there’s a certain music in the language.
The passage Floyd just read is singing right into the heart of the promise. You’ll notice this time, the covenant is not presented as a Top Ten list printed on those tablets. It’s the same covenant, but here, the writers are commending it to the people with a melody of pleading and praising. So it goes: “Now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? Only to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love God, to serve the LORD… with all your heart and your soul, and to keep the commandments of the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 10:12-13a).
In this, you can hear the question the people must’ve been asking: Is the LORD our God really able to rescue us? (If parts of Deuteronomy were pieced together after the Babylonian Exile, this question makes sense!) Is God powerful enough to save us?
Underneath this question, I wonder if the Israelites were asking, If God is as powerful as you say, how do we love this author of all the earth and the heaven of heavens? Not how could we love God, but what does this love look like? I’m guessing they asked this, because this is the question that gets answered.
Right in the middle of this call to be swept up in the fullness of all wonder, love, and praise, the covenant turns strangely specific. You want to love the LORD your God who is the God of gods and the LORD of Lords —you want to love God? It’s this: The LORD executes justice for the orphan, and the widow. God loves the immigrants and provides them with food and clothing. So you should also love the immigrants for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.
A minute ago the speaker was practically summoning the angels from every corner of creation! May our love of God rise up from the valleys and soar through the stars. And by the way, if we’re really serious about it, these three groups of people need something to wear and something to eat.
The LORD our God is especially concerned for the orphans, and the widows, and the immigrants. We hear these three groups mentioned all through the Old Testament. They were named in our call to worship, in our Psalm of the Day. From the prophets to the poets, this refrain keeps getting sung: You want to love God, you must care for the orphans, the widows, and the immigrants.
The reason for this particular trio was that ancient Israel had a patriarchal household economy. This means you have a place to live if you are part of a household. If you’re not in a household, if you don’t have a father or a husband, if you’re not from around here, then forget it. The reason why it’s these groups is because the orphans, and widows, and immigrants were the people who fell through the cracks.
And so it is, if we mean to love the LORD our God, we must love and care for the people who fall through the cracks. The orphans, and widows, and immigrants. The children who die trying to cross the border. The grandparents raising grandchildren whose parents died from opioid addiction. The people designated as registered sex offenders who can’t rent an apartment and get turned away from every shelter. The teenagers sitting in jail contemplating suicide. Inside every overwhelming social issue, there are vividly practical concerns these people are up against. Make no mistake, these practical concerns are at the heart of God.
And I know how this sounds. Giving diapers to a family at the Food Pantry does not end all poverty. Reading with a child at PeacePals does not solve illiteracy everywhere. It seems like these small actions barely make a dent in the problem. This helping does not even resolve the conflict we carry in our conscience.
Instead, these simple acts of service will make your heart break in precisely the same place where God’s heart breaks open. See these children gonna fall through the cracks, and maybe we can’t do enough, but we’ve got to do something.
You and I know, something that makes the church distinct is that we are a people who choose to put our faith in God’s dream for the world. We’ve already begun working for the day when no child will go without diapers, when no families go hungry, when nobody is homeless, when nobody falls through the cracks. These are the practical concerns that tremble the heart of God.
So the next time you are talking to a teenager who wants to stop and give money to the man who is panhandling, or who asks you what happens to people when the shelters are full, or who insists on finding out whether the stray cat has a family, maybe we could let the world teach the teenagers there are reasons why you can’t always stop and help. Let the world try to teach them that being an adult means going through life carrying this open wound in our conscience. We don’t have to teach them this. See there are practical concerns and there are practical concerns, and what if the church can do something more?
You want to help someone and you’re not sure how? The church is exactly the place to come. When your heart breaks because you know someone is suffering, bring your heartbreak here and let’s see what we can do. Yes, we cannot solve every problem, but you know what we don’t have to do? We do not have to walk by on the other side. Not this time. Not today. The youth are right.
As the church, we could position ourselves to watch for those who are falling through the cracks and help them. This is the heart of the covenant. It is what it means to love God. It’s up to us to go and do the same. Amen.