Bearing the Heavy Things in Life Series – Part 5 of 8: The Whole Truth
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
April 16th, 2017
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?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
He 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’[c]; 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[e] 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.”
I know some of you have your children sitting with you and I want to talk to you for just a moment and I want to say to you: this is the place for your children to be. We have left the aisles open so that when your child needs to run, they can do it in the house of God. If you cannot have fun in the house of God where can you have it? Let me follow by saying, if you are an uptight kind of person who tends to look down your nose and purse your lips, you are in the wrong place. It’s just us; we help one another along. If your children need to stand to see, that chair is for that too. If you need to bring a drink — coffee or water — and you spill it on the floor, added to the others; it’s okay. [laughter]
We hear our text today and we come at it from our position of strength; we like this story. We hear the text; we are walking in God’s way when we are the Good Samaritan, compassion that costs us something. We don’t usually like things that cost us anything but we do like compassion, especially when we can come at it from our position of having. We give of our excess; it costs us something and we call it good. We are the Good Samaritan. That is how we should hear this story unless we are the ones in the ditch.
Have you ever been robbed and beaten? Have you ever had something that was yours and yours alone taken from you? You may have tried to fight back or you may have realized that there’s no chance to fight back. I think that if we are following Jesus and we want to get to Easter then we have to approach Easter the same way Jesus did. This last week, we have watched Jesus come up from Jericho to Jerusalem where he rode into town on a donkey, not his own. He has been seized, stripped, beaten and left among the dead. I actually think people who really get Easter are folks who been beaten, stripped and left along the road, bullied on the playground, laughed at in the locker room, mishandled by adults, held down and pounded, labeled as the problem, abandoned, screwed over, sold out by a former friend, stabbed in the back, left at the altar, embarrassed, criticized, humiliated, derided, denied, tormented, attacked. Easter is not for the winners in life who just a little bump to get over the latest speed hill. You have to lose, all in, where tired was months ago. Exhaustion has now set in and you’re going through the motions. You know that you’re going to need about three weeks of good sleep before you can feel tired again. You have been served. You have been dumped. No, you’re not wanted. You don’t know where to go. You don’t know what to do. You do not know how to cope. People who are motivators, who want to motivate you with words like: just imagine, believe, achieve, be stronger, be smarter. After you stop wanting to slap them you mostly just feel queasy because there are really no words that rightly describe how you feel, how you are coping, how you are getting along.
Hang in there, people say. Those people you really want to strangle because they are shallow and syrupy and slapping just isn’t enough. Truth of the matter is you can hardly breathe. Beaten is a good starting word; half-dead comes a lot closer. And your jaw just aches from clenching. My suspicion is that everyone here has either been in that place, been close to someone who was in that place, or is currently in that place right now. We know enough; we’ve seen enough; we are smart enough; we are insightful enough to know that the wheels of life turn and it will come around again. And it might not have been for us last time, but maybe it will be for us next time. Suffering finds us and anybody that tells you otherwise is lying.
This is the church and this is where we practice for everything that comes with life. We come here on Sundays and we practice dying. We come here and we practice grieving; we come here and we practice hanging on; we come here and we practice grace. We do a lot of grace here; we are people of grace.
So today I actually just want to tell you a story. I was a freshman in high school in the fall of 1981. There were four of us that ran together. We were in the same scout troop. We ran together. We had gone to the same junior high — there was only one junior high in town — and we went to it and we ran together, and the reason that we ran together was we were all tall and had big heads. Dorky guys, right? Four dorks: Anthony, Dave, Chris and me. Dave and I and Chris all had homeroom together. Our names began with the right letters, so when they grouped us we all ended up together, which worked fine for us and we figured out pretty early on that if we talked a lot we would get separated. So we didn’t talk a lot, we passed notes, elbow jabs and looks.
One day, fairly early in the fall, there was a new kid in homeroom. His name was Sam; our homeroom teacher introduced him to us. He was in first hour too in English class, first hour. Then he was in PE second hour. We saw him in the hallway and then in third hour, science, right before lunch, Sam was in that class and the teacher assigned Sam to the lab table with Anthony and myself and Dave. He didn’t say much but he seemed to get the project and we all did fine; filled out our paperwork and handed it in. After class the three of us walked to the cafeteria: Anthony and Chris and I. We kind of noticed but tried not to that Sam was walking with us. He had a lunch ticket so he came thru the lunch line and we all got our food on the trays and then we went to sit down at our table. You know our table? You do not sit at our table. There were four of us and five chairs and only three of us who went through together at this time and Dave would come along later. We all sat down at the table and Sam came and sat with us. The three of us looked at each other like: dude! This was the early 80s and we had not discovered that word yet, I think it was more like: man! That assignment to be in our group was just for science class but none of us said anything. When Dave came and joined us at the lunch table, Anthony introducing Sam like he was an old friend and we been expecting him.
Just to prove to you to you that we really were dorks: in the coming weeks the big problem for us was not how to include Sam, it was how to explain Dungeons and Dragons to him. [laughter] Sam only spoke a little bit of English. We found out that he was Laotian. Sam was not his full name; it was an abbreviation that had been handed to him, so he went by Sam. Laos was a neighbor to Vietnam which Vietnam had invaded following America leaving Vietnam. After a few days we noticed some things about Sam, one of which was that every day he talked about his Mom. How she was going to come get him; how she was going to take him away. This was a conversation in which his English was remarkable. He was waiting for his Mom to show up and to take him. In the course of the conversations we asked questions – probably didn’t ask them the best way – we asked him how he ended up in America with genuine interest. He kept saying a word that we did not understand: umcar, umcar, umcar. What is that word?
Our town, Keokut Iowa, was on the Mississippi. A lot of families had boats. Lake Keokut, which was right above the dam, filled up with people and boats. So our group talked it over — Chris Dave and Anthony and I – we talked it over and we said: Sam should come with us some time. One afternoon after school — you know how teenagers talk all at the same time and they don’t stop to let each other talk they just keep talking – so in one sentence three or four voices we ask Sam three questions all at the same time. We asked him if he wanted to go with us; if he knew how to swim; and if he had a swimsuit, pretty much at the same time. All of the blood went out of Sam’s face. I don’t know if it went to his major organs or to his feet, but I do know that was in his face was a look of wide-eyed abject terror. When he could talk again: he said my family swam in the Mekong River to survive.
We sat down at a picnic table out in front of our high school and he began to tell us that he and his family had entered the Mekong River to float down river trying to survive. In the river was where he had lost his Father and his two Sisters, not to crocodiles but to bullets. He and his mother had become separated in the current in the dark and that he hid in the reeds along the river where he heard soldiers up on the bank and that he then heard his mother get captured by those soldiers in the dark. She cried out to him to run and to hide. He heard gunshots as they shot out into the darkness trying to hit him. Those robbers seized from Sam what was his and his alone.
You do know that my Father is a United Methodist minister, right? I think he is serving an appointment near here. [laughter] If you don’t know my father retired and he is now at Sun Lakes has an interim pastor there for them. In the fall I went with him to a funeral of someone we knew from church. There at the funeral home I saw Sam. I said Hi; we talked just a little bit and it turns out that Sam had a weekend and evening job around the funeral home. Then he told me in very practiced English, umcor got me out of Vietnam where he had been in a refugee camp. UMCOR is the United Methodist Committee on Relief. I know what UMCOR is. It turns out that he had continued down the river with other people from his village and the surrounding area to a refugee camp. It was an UMCOR refugee camp. UMCOR had helped him and now he was living in Keokuk. His sponsor family was an older couple from the other Methodist Church in town. I don’t know what Sam’s faith was; we never talked about it.
Time went by and Sam talked about his Mother: how strong she was, how beautiful she was, how he wished that he had been brave so that he could have defended her from the soldiers. He was forgetting that their guns have bullets. Then one day, it was early December, that he announced to us that he would not see us anymore after Christmas break and that he would be saying goodbye to us because he knew that his mother was coming to get him over Christmas break. Now there is faith, Scripture tells us that faith is hoping for things to come and then there’s fantasy and we knew — even though we were 15 years old — we knew that Sam didn’t know where his mom was; didn’t know what had become of her; didn’t even know she was still alive. And as Christmas break drew closer, we all noticed a change in Sam. Then we tried to get near Sam and just hang on to him. I look back at it now and I recognize it as a tentative balance between crushing depression and rational denial. When Sam was not thinking about his Mom, he was depressed, he was broken inside. And if she was mentioned, often times by him, he would light up as if she had just walked in the room and given him a hug and kissed him on the forehead.
The depression and the weight of this got so bad the Sam just started punching things. He would punch doors, bleachers lockers, sophomores. [laughter] We had a few conversations. We seriously thought Sam was going to lose it. Then right before Christmas break he said goodbye to us and shook each of our hands and thanked us for our friendship. I am not sure that my parents knew that I had an Asian friend in High School, not that it would’ve been a problem; not that it would’ve mattered. But because Sam had an after school and evening and weekend job, he never came over to the house and he never went out of the river with us.
My mom in the late 70s and early 80s was finding her voice. My mom is of that age. She got married and she said those age-old words I will obey him. And so my mom was a women’s libber in the late 70s early 80s and that she worked very hard on the Equal Rights Amendment and she worked very hard for the National Organization of Women. She wrote checks about once a month to NOW. She thought it was so cool when Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro to be his running mate. I remember one afternoon it was raining and so we got picked up from school. My mom picked us up and she’s driving and she said wouldn’t it be cool if Mondale gets elected and dies. [laughter] A lot of people felt that way. She wanted to do something; we boys were getting older and we didn’t need her so much. She started the conversation, with herself and with us, about wanting to do something else. Now my Mom’s profession was teaching English as a second language to people who were immigrating to this country. Dinners at our house oftentimes had people from all over the world and I count that as wealth in my childhood. I had a rich childhood because I got to sit and listen to people who saw the world very differently.
So it was no surprise when my Mom was excited, she found this program where she could sponsor someone to come to this country. I remember helping her to set up the apartment for when they came in. I remember the evening and my Mom was going to drive to Des Moines and meet the plane and bring this family home with them. It was just my Mom because there were four people in the family. My mom grew up in the morning and actually it was important for her. She wanted to do this and so they came upon Banh Keit and Nyung and their two children came to America. When I got out of the car I was waiting to help them with their bags. It was late in the night. They didn’t need my help because everything that they owned fit in a single box. The whole family, everything that they owned fit in that box. They showed us a picture that had been taken a few years before of Banh Keit and Nyung and their three children. Now they had two. I never asked and they never shared what happened to their third child but along the road of life — Banh Keit and Nyung — something very important was taken from them. They were beaten and bleeding by the side of the road. There were very reserved, very quiet people.
Banh Keit had attended medical school and had been a physician in Laos. But his medical degree was not recognized in the United States and so he and Nyung and their two kids took a job as janitors at a local United Methodist Church. They vacuumed, they dusted, they wiped things down, they swept, they mopped, they mowed, they shoveled snow. It paid. Then my Mom ran across another job for them cleaning the office of a dentist in the evening. They were able to get a car and a better apartment. One afternoon Banh Keit stopped in another business looking for cleaning work and the owner said, I’m so sorry we don’t need any help right now, we’ve got Sam. The owner gestured and by Banh Keit of course looked over his shoulder where the owner of the business had gestured and it was the funeral home where Sam worked after school. Banh Keit looked at Sam for a moment and then quietly in native tongue asked him: which province are you from? It turns up that Keith and Sam’s families were from two villages about five kilometers apart. Both families had swum in the Mekong River and both had come through the same refugee camp. Banh Keit may very well have treated Sam for dysentery in the camp.
A little while later, Banh Keit was able to tell Sam that the soldiers did not keep prisoners. It was in that moment — Sam told us even later — that it was when he realized the bullets he thought the soldiers had fired into the darkness after him had been the bullets that had killed his Mom. It was Banh Keit who caught Sam when his knees gave out in grief. In the journey of his life, Sam finally recognized something very important had been taken from him, stolen and he was now able to be by the side of the road, beaten and bleeding. And it was there he could be found. It was only a few more days before Banh Keit and Nyung invited Sam to move into their apartment. They adopted him in all sense of the word. I think he was okay after that, as okay as he could be. And I think it restored them a little bit too. The next summer, our family moved away. I know just a little bit more. Sam did complete high school and then he went to college. All three on Banh Keit and Nyung’s kids went to college. During college Sam fell in with a gang of Quakers. [laughter]
They got Sam into medical school and the last that I heard Sam was working as a medical missionary in Southeast Asia in the border between Laos and Vietnam. You came to church on Sunday; what is the word of resurrection that you need to hear? Is the word of Malachi, the Lord, whom you are seeking will suddenly and unexpectedly come to you. Is it the word of the Psalm when the Lord restored our fortune it was like a dream and we were filled with laughter, and we sing with joy. We planted in tears, but we harvest with laughter. The Easter message that I have for you is that our God is in the healing and the restoration business. There is nothing you can lose that God cannot restore. There is no beating that you can take that God can’t heal. Though it will not come in the time that you expect and it will not be the way you expect. God has a way of bringing the people into our lives that we need in our lives; it is true. There have been people who come into our lives, they looked at us and our injury and they passed us by. But God is always bringing someone else down the road. Thanks be to God.