Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

July 14, 2019

Texts: Exodus 2:1-10; Luke 10:25-37

       In 1964, in what seems like another century we were all horrified at the story of Kitty Genovese, a 29-year old woman who cried for help for over a half hour as she was stabbed to death while none of her forty neighbors even called the police for help. What causes our lack of re-sponse to such situations? Apathy? Fear? The feeling that it’s just none of our business what people do to each other? When is it that we cross the road and for what? And, more importantly, for whom? 

       The Kitty Genovese story was taken as a symbol of apathy in an urban culture where people have lost touch with each other and live as automatons. Pharaoh’s name-less daughter could have simply let the baby boy float down the river to be picked up by one of her father’s soldiers who surely would have killed him. Instead she reached out and had one of her servants pick up the baby, much like the church group Humane Borders reaches out to border crossers by leaving water stations in the desert. 

And every morning the Border Patrol agents go out to find the jugs of water and slash them ostensibly so migrants are forced to come to a road where they are more easily apprehended. 

         The Border Patrol was more than a bit upset when their so-called tactics were broadcast. Who would destroy containers of life saving water in a Cabeza Prieta desert ?  In his book The Line Becomes a River Francisco Cantu, who worked as a border patrol agent for several years, describes the attitudes of the agents regarding the migrants––something that has been exposed in another way by a leaked Facebook page. 

        Several volunteers from No More Deaths, an organ-ization that leaves food and water in the desert, were found guilty of violating  tthe national decision to leave the [Cabesza Preito] Refuge in its pristine nature.” The judge had no comment on the video of the Border Patrol dump-ing water. The women now face prison for crossing the road. As a volunteer for No More Deaths said, the guilty verdict “challenges people of conscience throughout the country.”  

         Crossing the road does not necessarily involve activities for which you might face prison time. But not crossing the road could. I wonder how many of us remem-ber a fatal accident twelve years ago on the Garden State Parkway right here in Middletown. Mark Mairs, 18 years old at the time rear-ended a man on a motorcycle. He got out of his car and went over to the accident victim; he then spoke with the passengers in his car, Andrew Swanson and Kyle Newell, neither of whom ever called any emergency services in spite of the fact that they made 44 calls on their cell phones over the next three hours. Shortly after they left him to die on the Parkway, the victim was dis-covered by another driver who immediately called the police. 

        The case known as “Estate of Tony Podias v. Mark Mairs, et al” sued not only the driver but the passengers claiming they were all liable for the death of Tony Podias because, had any one of them called, he might have been saved. Also included in the suit was the person at whose home they had been drinking. Left in the middle of the road, he was hit again.

         This case of first impression sits at the boundaries of the Good Samaritan statutes. Originally designed to pro-tect ordinary persons from civil and/or criminal liability when they sought to help someone, usually hurt in an accident, Good Samaritan statutes are being extended to include a duty of care to such persons. 

         How far does that duty of care go? Does it include stopping to call to assist a victim of some kind of accident if there are no police and/or emergency services at the scene? Does it include at least calling for such services on our cell phones? How often have you or I seen someone by the side of the road, usually working on the assumption that the person had a cell phone and could call for help and kept on going without even a thought?  I know I have.

         It is now common to read stories about the refusal of witnesses to testify for fear of reprisals from gang mem-bers or the accused person’s family. What is it that has happened to our sense of community and how we think about ourselves that has enabled such a total breakdown in values? In our quest for the so-called American dream, which used to be life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which, by the way, in the eighteenth century was consid-ered to be something more than individual gratification, we have become little more than boats floating loose from the moorings of civic responsibility. 

         Everything around us has become a commodity with a monetary value attached, including time. We even look at our relationships as investments; we put in a certain amount and expect a certain return. The language of con-sumerism has pervaded everything in our lives. It has even invaded the church, now termed a “spiritual marketplace.” “Spiritual marketplace?” Something is wrong here, really wrong.

          That Samaritan who crossed the road to help the man who had been set on and beaten by thieves did not ask about the return he was going to get on his invest-ment. He did so because, as the text says, he was moved with pity. He was not just moved, however; he did some-thing about it. He picked up the man and put him on his own beast and brought him to an inn where he could have care. 

          The early church recognized the importance of caring for one another. The Good News was brought to all, regardless of their status: whether they were slave or free, Jew or Gentile, outsider or insider. The church shared their goods and their lives in common; it was in this way they built their community. They cared for one another, lived for one another, and they died for one another. There was a feeling of mutual care, of mutual responsibility, something we’ve lost in our money-oriented, consumer driven culture. 

          What do these stories say to us today? Lawyers will split hairs over what is called the duty to care, but as Christians, we have to look at what God calls us to do. We know that God calls us to care for others regardless of race, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, sexual orienta-tion, or a whole host of other factors. What we know deep in the core of our being and how we actually act are often two different stories. 

          What do we do when approached by the pan-handler? What do we do when we see someone obviously inebriated stagger towards us? We respond defensively, partly out of fear, partly out of disgust at the condition of the person we see in front of us. We use what we call our common sense in these situations. Although I may buy a cup of coffee for the panhandler rather than giving him or her the money for a bad habit––usually alcohol, I have the common sense not to try the same thing with someone who is drunk. You don’t know what will happen. But I do feel guilty about avoiding the drunk. What to do? 

         I wish there were easy answers to these questions. I struggle every day with the limits I place on myself, the boundaries I create for myself. I recognize that I cannot help everyone. None of us can, so we need to pick and choose our battles; we need to decide what is critical to us as Christians. Each of us will define our boundaries in a different way; the important question is whether we remain true to the Gospel’s call to care for those around us as Jesus calls us to do. 

           So, what happened to Kitty Genovese’s killer? Winston Moseley, a married man and father of two children, confessed not only to her murder but two others; denied parole twelve times, he died in prison at the age of 81 in 2016. Mark Mairs, the rich kid from Matawan who left Tony Podias for dead on the Garden State Parkway, was sentenced to three years for leaving the scene of a fatal accident. The State Appellate Court held that Swanson and Newell shared liability in a civil suit. The person who subsequently hit Podias and who stopped and called the police did not face criminal charges.

          Let us pray: God of the Samaritan and of the baby in the basket, give us grace to find your face in all your children and to care for them. In the name of him who crosses all roads, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.