June 3, 2018, Spider Man of the 18th – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000083
This past week there was a pretty spectacular rescue that happened in Paris. A four-year-old boy fell from a balcony of the apartment where he lived, from the 5th or 6th floor, and just managed to catch himself on the 4th floor balcony. He was hanging there, above the street, with a panicky crowd gathering on the street below him, when a young man, Mamoudou Gassama, a 22-year-old migrant from Mali, came by. He was on his way to a football match, but as soon as he saw what was happening, he swung himself up balcony by balcony, to the 4th floor and in less than 30 seconds he had caught hold of the little boy and lifted him over the balcony railing to safety. And of course, living in the age we live in, someone down on the street captured the rescue on their smartphone and the whole thing went viral. The French press dubbed him “Spider Man of the 18th” because the neighborhood where it all happened was the 18th Arrondisement. And French President Macron granted him legal status as a citizen in recognition of his heroism in saving the child’s life.
In the news reports that followed the rescue, there were a lot of legal issues raised. First of all, Gassama had risked his life to come to France to join his brother, from his homeland in Africa, knowing that the chances of his being sent home were very high – only 13,000 out of the more than 100,000 immigrants who apply for asylum in France manage to be accepted. Mr. Gassama’s very right to stay in France was in question when he made the decision to climb the apartment building and put himself into the public spotlight. And then there were legal questions and accusations about how that little boy came to fall from his balcony in the first place. It turns out that his father, who had just begun taking custody of his son, had left him alone while he went shopping, and ended up being away longer than he planned. He was charged with child neglect, and of course there is no shortage of people ready to point fingers at him.
But none of those legal questions, or questions of blame, mattered when Mr. Gassama saw the little boy dangling precariously, 4 stories above the street. “I didn’t think about it,” he said in an interview, “I climbed up and God helped me.”
In the gospel reading this morning, Jesus came into the synagogue on the Sabbath – that was Saturday, which was the Jewish Holy Day for worship, as we worship on Sunday. Only they took it much more seriously than we generally do, because the Sabbath Day was a sign of their identity as God’s people and keeping the Sabbath was a matter of law, not just tradition. On that day, there was a man in the synagogue who had a withered arm – he might have had polio or some other illness or accident, and it had left him disabled. And the Jewish leaders were watching like hawks, their attention riveted on what Jesus might do. If he healed the man on the Sabbath, they had fresh fuel for the fire of their accusations against him. Because obviously, he couldn’t be a godly man if he didn’t keep God’s law.
We read over and over again in the gospels, how Jesus had to deal with the blindness that comes with being slaves to the law. In following the letter of the law – and the Pharisees were much better at that than most of us would probably be – they had become blind to the spirit of the law. They had failed to recognize the source of the law, which wasn’t God’s demand for perfection – it was his love. Paul, who was a Pharisee himself, wrote this: “The commandments,“You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and every other commandment, are all summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If you love your neighbor, you don’t do anything to harm them; that’s why love is the fulfilling of the law.”
But the Pharisees in the synagogue on that Sabbath Day, were blind to that. They looked at their neighbor, a man suffering from a terrible disability, and they saw only two choices: whether Jesus would break the Sabbath by performing a work of healing, or whether he would obey the law by keeping the Sabbath. And it is one of those fairly rare, but real, moments, when Jesus responded in anger. He was furious with them, as he asked them this question: “Is it lawful,” he asked them, “to do good on the Sabbath, or to do evil. Is it lawful to give life, or to kill?” The choice before them had nothing to do with following regulations. Faced with the suffering and need of their neighbor, their real choice was between good and evil, between life and death. Because the truth is that there is no morally neutral place in which we can simply be guided by the letter of the law. To refuse to do good is to choose evil. To refuse to give life, when it is in our power to give it, is to deal out death.
It is very much the same choice that faced the young Malian immigrant when he saw a child dangling from a 4th floor railing. It was in his power literally to give life, though there was no law that required him to do anything. It was the the little boy’s father who was the one legally responsible for his son’s well-being. Mr. Gassama was in a fragile position himself, legally, as one who had not yet been accepted as a legal resident of France. But because he was able to do what needed to be done, he understood that his choice was only this – to do good or to do evil; to climb up the outside of the building to save a life, or to allow the child to fall to his death.
We are not often – if ever – going to be faced ourselves with such a literal application of Jesus’ words. And yet, it happens every day, many times a day, that we have to make choices in our response to the needs and the shortcomings and the disabilities of our neighbors. And for us, as for the Pharisees, it is a very easy thing for us to retreat into the safety of the law. We can excuse ourselves from actively loving our neighbor in so many clever and respectable ways, can’t we? I have often done it myself, I know.
We say, “I have been working all day; I’m tired, and I really need a little quiet.” Need is such a great word to use when we are making excuses – because we’re supposed to love ourselves, too, right?
We look at the number on the caller ID and we say, “I have every right to let the machine take that call. I know that person will just want to babble on forever about nothing anyway.”
Other times we are so sure that the suffering of that person is their own fault anyway; what good would it do to help out even if we can – wouldn’t helping them just be a waste of my time or my energy or my money?
What Jesus would have us remember is that our choices are not about what is legally right or wrong. It’s much more serious, much more real than that. Our choices in dealing with our fellow human beings are about good and evil, which is not really the same thing at all. Because in the end, all choices are between love and not-love, between giving life, by our words and our actions, or dealing out death, by our attitudes and our judgment and our lack of compassion.
In an interview with a reporter, Mr. Gassama said: “I like children, I would have hated to see him getting hurt in front of me. I ran and I looked for solutions to save him and thank God I scaled the front of the building to the balcony,” Who knows how many people were standing in the crowd watching the little boy, in terror that he might fall. But one person had the courage and the ability to act quickly and to save the child’s life. Our responsibility is to be fully awake to the situations in our own lives when we are that one person whose time or gifts or abilities are needed – even if it’s nothing more than a listening ear. Our choice, as Mr. Gassama put it, is to ‘look for solutions’ how we can do good and not harm, how we can give life, and not let it be lost. And then, to do it.