THE BLACK MAN AND THE TEA CART
A Sermon by
The Rev. Barbara Mraz
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
St. Paul, Minnesota
July 14, 2019
I’m getting smarter about online purchases. This time I didn’t buy my item from Amazon but Target so I could return it to an actual store instead of boxing it up and lugging it to UPS.
It was a rattan tea cart-– or so the description said. Actually it was a hideous plastic contraption with wheels that didn’t turn. And a tea cart? Really?
I was pretty sure I could get it into my car.
It didn’t fit in the trunk but I managed to wedge it into the back seat of my Honda and then quickly slam the door shut.
I shop at the Midway Target. Statistically, there is more crime here than say, in Highland. Purse-snatching, shoplifting, panhandling, even robbery. Also a lot of people of color shop here and I like the diversity. However, I keep my head up and my eyes open, watch my purse, and lock it in the car before unloading groceries into the trunk.
So I drive to Target and I can’t get the darned tea cart out of the back seat. I yank on it, I push it, I move stuff, I say, “Are you freaking kidding me?” several times. I try forcing the front seat forward and ultimately the stupid thing gets stuck part way out the door. I’m thinking who to call, what to do when an older black man with bushy hair and a baseball hat comes up to me smiling and says, “I’m going to help you.”
“Just a minute here,” I’m thinking, since I’m wondering if this is a trick or a con or if he would demand to be paid, or snatch my purse off the front seat. At that moment he was “the other” — black and male and I was white and female and it was Midway.
Before I could say anything, he started working on the tea cart. He asked me to go around to the other side and push it towards him. Walking around the car, I said, “I’m too fat to get through here.”
“You’re not fat. My wife’s always saying that. I’m fat. I’m fat. None of you is fat.”
His name, I learned, was Tom and after fifteen minutes or so of really hard work, the stupid tea cart was out.
“God is good, “he said. “Now I need a hug.”
There was a brief hug and I told him I could not thank him enough and … he smiled and went into the store.
This is one incident I want to use to explore the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is not as clear-cut as you might think , no matter how many times you’ve heard it.
The Biblical setting is the fifteen-mile Jericho Road leading to Jerusalem, with its abundance of caves and other hiding places along the way where robbers hid before attacking travelers. Our own Jericho Roads can be so dangerous that the most responsible thing we can do is stay away from them. There are areas in North Minneapolis where most of would never go alone at night.
The Samaritans had broken away from Judaism hundreds of years earlier. They did not worship at the Jerusalem temple and there was bitter hatred between the two groups. To say that this is about the good Samaritan implies the rest of them were bad Samaritans.
Of the five characters, which do we identity with?
Three of them are easy to dismiss. The priest and the Levite may have been late for important appointments or worried that they were walking into a trap. The priest was not supposed to touch blood because then he couldn’t do his temple job for seven days. He was choosing between duty and duty and some times that can be our choice as well. The innkeeper was paid to care for the man so let’s take him out of the discussion, too.
So what about the Samaritan?
Not all of us have the resources to act as the Samaritan did. He had extra money to pay the innkeeper to help. He had some mode of transportation, probably a donkey. He had time to help and to check back later. But remember that as a Samaritan, he was despised by the Jews, an enemy, an outsider, a threat, the other.
This does not describe most of us here.
That leaves the bleeding man on the side of the road.
In his classic book on parables, Robert Funk says that this is the one with whom we really identify, not the moral extremes of the others, because all of us have been reduced in one way or another to a state of utter need, bereft of resources usually there for us, besieged by health or family issues, robbed of our security and assumption that life is fair, sick with anxiety for someone we love, not knowing where or when or if help will come.
The man in the ditch has no religious or professional identify that we know of; he is simply in need. The parable tells us that God’s grace will arrive, perhaps in the form least expected, even in the form of an outcast. The theologian Sam Wells writes, “The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a moralistic tale that affirms us as energetic and resourceful benefactors of the neglected needy in our neighborhoods and communities. Instead it shows that we ourselves are desperately needy for relationship, for healing, for forgiveness, for reconciliation……But the form Jesus takes to meet our need can be that of the person we despise and hate and ostracize. We must be prepared to receive help from the person we couldn’t believe had anything to give us.” I would add that these same people may be able to teach us things that we would not learn from others.
Let me confess my unintentional but embedded racism as I described what happened to me in the parking lot at Target. I saw the man coming towards me as a threat because of his color and gender because of where I was. A white man coming towards me at the Highland Lund’s or Kowalski’s would not have scared me in the same way. So what I learned from Tom was the importance of confidence in helping another person, such as a black man stepping up to help a white woman who didn’t ask for it.
My racist father learned his lesson in the nursing home. Reduced to a level of need that embarrassed and frustrated him, he received skilled care and tender assistance from people of color from several countries (men and women) and learned from them that race is not a barrier to goodness, a lesson he would not learn from me, no matter how frequently and fervently I tried to teach it.
My brother, who mildly joked about gay people even when I told him it wasn’t at all funny, learned from a woman named Pam who married my daughter, that people can be wonderful and fun and funny and good in spite of perceived difference.
The lawyer in the parable asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” The subtext being who is not my neighbor so I can just get rid of that list. In the parable Jesus foreshadows the words of Martin Luther when, in translating a Biblical passage from Latin, was asked what was the best German word for “neighbor?” One meant “the person next door.” One meant “the person in need.” He chose the second one. Our neighbor is the person in need.
No one practiced neighborliness more eloquently than Mr. Rogers. He called everyone into his circle, inviting them to be his neighbor.
“It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
A beautiful day for a neighbor,
Would you be mine?
Could you be mine?”
I’ve poked my share of fun at nerdy Mr. Rogers, laughed at comedian Eddie Murphy’s send up of the show called “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood,” but gained a renewed appreciation for Fred Rogers when I watched the documentary released after his death. This man was the real deal, unquestionably genuine, relentlessly respectful, and with a gift to make people feel better about themselves. Every broadcast ended with the best words ever: “Remember I love you just the way you are.”
If you read “Epistles and Epiphanies” on Friday, you saw the video I posted of Mr. Rogers befriending the ultimate “other” – another species, Koko the gorilla. Mr. Rogers draws Koko into his circle by his gentleness and patience, and then asks Koko to teach him about something and she does.
Mr. Rogers used this technique in another situation, described here by a journalist who interviewed him:
“Once upon a time, there was a boy who didn’t like himself very much. Somehow he thought it was his fault that he was as he was. When the little boy grew up to be a teenager, he would get so mad at himself that he would hit himself, hard, with his own fists and tell his mother, on the computer he used to speak, that he didn’t want to live anymore, for he was sure that God didn’t like what was inside him any more than he did.
He had always loved Mister Rogers, though, and now, even when he was fourteen years old, he watched the Neighborhood whenever it was on, and the boy’s mother sometimes thought that Mister Rogers was keeping her son alive. One day she learned through a special foundation designed to help children like her son that Mister Rogers was coming to California and that after he visited the gorilla named Koko, he was coming to meet her son.
The boy was so nervous when Mister Rogers did visit, he got mad at himself and began hating himself and hitting himself, and his mother had to take him to another room and talk to him.
Mister Rogers didn’t leave, though. He wanted something from the boy, so he just waited patiently, and when the boy came back, Mister Rogers talked to him, and then he made his request: “I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?” On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for him. Mister Rogers said, “I would like you to pray for me. Will you pray for me?”
And now the boy didn’t know how to respond. He was thunderstruck because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and although at first he didn’t know if he could do it, but he said he’d try, and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn’t talk about wanting to die anymore, because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too.
When Mister Rogers first told me the story (the journalist goes on) I complimented him for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself. Mister Rogers responded by looking at me at first with puzzlement and then with surprise. “Oh, heavens no, Paul! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”
Hear again the words of Sam Wells, ”The parable of the Good Samaritan is not a moralistic tale that affirms us as energetic and resourceful benefactors of the neglected needy in our neighborhoods and communities. You’re not their benefactor. You’re not the answer to their prayer. They’re the answer to yours.” They may have things to teach you that others can’t.
These are words to honor this very day as ICE begins its raids on the homes of thousands of suspected undocumented immigrants in major U.S. cities, and as children continue to be confined in cages at our southern border, a situation publicly condemned by all six of the Episcopal bishops of Texas.
By following the commands of Jesus in this parable, perhaps we can begin to see the gifts that the despised and afflicted can bring us, to help us start regaining our sense of decency as a people and as a country.
Sources, in part:
Robert Funk, Funk on Parables, Poleridge Press, 2006.
Sam Wells, “What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?” sermon at Duke Divinity School, 2010.
Barbara Mraz, “We All Own a Piece of the Road,” sermon at St. John the Evangelist, July 14, 2013.
Internet transcription of interview with Mr. Rogers.