Preached by the Rev. David K. Fly at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, July 11, 2010
“But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” Luke 10:29
Ida was a prostitute who lived in Paris. When the artist Romare Beardon met her in the late 1920s, his first impression was that she was one of the ugliest people he’d ever seen. But he liked Ida and was sorry she chose the life of a prostitute. He became her friend and was able to get her another job for which she was always grateful. As a way of expressing her appreciation, Ida arrived every Saturday to clean Beardon’s studio.
At the end of the studio, Beardon had placed a large piece of brown paper. Saturday after Saturday, when Ida arrived, the brown paper would be hanging in its place and would be as empty as the Saturday before. She finally asked what he planned to do with it. “I’m eventually going to paint something there,” he said, “but as yet have no idea what I’ll paint.”
“Paint me,” said Ida. Bearden was so taken back that he couldn’t respond to this unattractive woman who said, “Paint me.” In the following Saturdays, Ida brought up the issue again. Finally, Beardon, who didn’t want to hurt her feelings by telling her the truth said that he just felt he couldn’t paint her and that was that. “If you can’t paint me, you’re in the wrong profession,” Ida told him. Beardon who eventually became a main figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement was shocked by her words. Here was an emerging young artist being confronted by a lowly prostitute. But Ida went on to say, “I know I’m ugly and I know that’s why you feel you cannot paint me. But when you can look at me and find what is beautiful, you’ll be a great artist.” Romare Beardon sadly confessed many years later that he never did paint Ida the prostitute, but that her words never left his memory.
The story of the artist and the prostitute came back to me when I read today’s gospel. A lawyer who wanted to test Jesus asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life and Jesus asks him what he had read in the law. And, of course, the lawyer rightly answered that he should love God with all his heart and soul and strength and mind and love his neighbor as himself. But then the lawyer pushes his luck. He asks Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” And that’s when Jesus turns the tables on the lawyer much as Ida turned the tables on that young artist in Paris. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus describes the ugliness and then tells the lawyer to paint it!
And for the lawyer, there’s a lot of ugliness in the story. The first unattractive part is that the main character is a Samaritan, an unclean person who should never be the hero of any story. The lawyer knows that much. The second character is a man broken and bleeding in a ditch along the road to Jericho. And then Jesus describes a couple of upright citizens not unlike the lawyer, who are too busy or too offended to bother responding to the man’s need. Of course, it’s the Samaritan who takes care of the man, bandages his wounds, takes him to a place where he can recuperate and pays his bills. “Which of the three,” asks Jesus “was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The lawyer, the one who had just described the answer to the eternal life question, has to respond, “The one who showed him mercy.” Notice, the lawyer doesn’t say, “The Samaritan.” Perhaps he just couldn’t get those words out of his mouth! So Jesus simply says, “Go and do likewise.”
“I know I’m ugly,” says Ida the prostitute to the young artist Romare Beardon, “but when you can look at me and find what is beautiful, you’ll be a great artist.”
There is a story of a young boy who was once playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his playmate to find him. After waiting a long time, he came out of his hiding place, but the other boy was nowhere to be seen. The boy who had been in hiding then realized that the other boy had not looked for him from the very beginning. That made him sad and so he ran to his grandfather to tell him what had happened. Tears welled up in his grandfather’s eyes as he listened to what the little boy was saying and then he told the child, “God says the same thing: ‘I hide, but no one wants to seek me.’”
Our God hides in the bodies of those whom we have discounted, in those who are hurt and broken. As Archbishop Tutu has said, we don’t have a choice of neighbors in this world – God is to be found in all people – ALL PEOPLE – black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful, gay, lesbian, so-called straight – Muslim, Christian, Jew, Buddhist – God hides in you and in me. If we recognize God in our neighbors, how can we go on spending obscene amounts on budgets of death and destruction, knowing full well that a minute fraction of this money would insure that children everywhere have clean water to drink and food to eat and adequate and affordable health care. God is to be found walking in the grand palaces of the Church but God suffers in the ditches of Soweto, and Santiago and St. Louis. When we learn to look on the world and see its beauty we discover the hidden face of God. And God longs for us to seek and find him. For as we do we will come to know our neighbor and as we learn to love our neighbor we will find the answer to the lawyer’s question of Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Amen.