Daffodils and Lizards

Sermon for Sunday, July 14, 2013
Proper 10C
Luke 10:25-37
Mr. Philip Flaherty, Guest Preacher


Note: This audio did not record very well. You can hear it, but it’s not the best quality.

From Luke 10:25-37 “But he  wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”. The lawyer had an attitude, and already knew the answer he wanted to hear. A first impression is all he’ll need to decide who’s who, a box for “neighbor” and a box for “other”.  We are like that lawyer. We’ like to rely on first impressions to select the right box. In fact, first impressions are a hard wired reflex.

Experts tell us it takes just seven seconds to form first impression. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. First impressions start in that tiny part of the brain sometimes referred to as the primitive “reptilian brain”, the function we share with every other creature on earth, from lizards to elephants. It’s the “fight-flight”, “friend or foe” instinct. Yes, God formed us each with the reptilian brain instinct for protection. But God also gave us the higher brain capacity that allows for compassion. Perhaps both the Levite and the priest in the parable relied on that first impression instinct to avoid a potential danger or at least an inconvenience. Was the Samaritan’s fight or flight instinct also triggered? It probably was, but he was also able to tap into something else. When I was a kid in Sunday School, we had to learn the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. I can remember two of them, Wisdom and Understanding. Is that what made the Samaritan act differently? Was he acting on the gifts of Wisdom and Understanding?

I suspect we’ve all at some time made a critical judgment based on a first impression, where we didn’t wait for Wisdom and Understanding. If you have ever acted on a first impression, have you ever been completely wrong in your judgment based on that first impression?

I’d like to share with you a wrong first impression experience. Then, your assignment, should you decide to accept it, is to think about a time when you formed a wrong opinion based on a first impression, and share your story with someone.

So here’s my story. Back in the 1970’s, a cult religion whose followers were known as “Moonies” was making a big splash in the U.S., especially in urban areas.  The “Moonie” cult was imported from Korea. Well dressed “Moonie” disciples would sell flowers at train stations and airports and door to door as a method of recruiting members. They would approach a prospect and hand them a flower with greeting like “Hi, I’m your neighbor”.

That’s about the time when my wife Connie and I had just moved into an old farm house in rural  Pembroke, Massachusetts, far out of the sphere of  “Moonie” activity.

We had just moved into our new home when one evening, Connie and I noticed someone at the door holding a bunch of cut flowers. He appeared to be well dressed, and there was something else different about him I will get to.  A well dressed man with flowers. Hmm. OBVIOUSLY not from around HERE. The opinion I formed came fast and certain. “IT’S MOONIES!  HOW DID THEY FIND US WAY OUT HERE?”

When I opened the door, sure enough, with a big smile, the visitor spoke first. “Hi. I’m your neighbor”. Then he handed me a yellow daffodil.

Suspicions confirmed! My reply was something like “Yeah, right”. And I was prepared to politely say “Thanks but no-thanks” and close the door. But the visitor continued, “…and my name is Bill, and I live just down the road. I picked up some flowers on my way home from Boston and thought I’d share one with you as a welcome to the neighborhood”.

Have you ever felt yourself getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller?

Attempting a fast recovery, I invited Bill in, where he, Connie and I had a wonderful chat. Bill turned out to be a great neighbor. Aside from the nice suit and the flowers, something else caused my reptilian brain to initially react. Bill looked different. Bill was born in California to Japanese immigrant parents, and we learned that Bill was no stranger to racial profiling. As a youth, Bill spent four years behind barbed wire in a resettlement camp in the Arizona desert. That’s where our government authorities sent Japanese Americans right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. And We The People let it happen. As a nation, we were letting the “reptilian brain” do the driving.

Are we any less prone to stereotyping today?  My niece’s husband Robbie’s parents are Armenian. Robbie looks Middle Eastern, and has a Middle Eastern sounding last name. Not long after 9/11, Robbie was taken out of at an airport check-in line by security agents for a pat down and questioning. Were these actions based on Wisdom and Understanding, or the agent’s reptilian brain urgency to get things into the right box?

Beyond that, how infectious can one individual’s rash judgment be? Can it lead to a mob mentality? It’s clear that wrong impressions can cause embarrassment, humiliation, and even violation of civil liberties. But current national news tells us that first impressions can ultimately lead to tragic loss of life, as in the Zimmerman case.

One thing I take away from today’s Gospel lesson is I need to beware of first impressions. The reptilian brain is not going to go away. It’s part of our biology. It’s hard wired to send us that fight-flight, friend or foe impulse. We can speculate the Levite and the priest in today’s parable acted on their fight-flight instinct, while the Samaritan overcame it. The Samaritan saw the man in the ditch through the Gifts given of Wisdom and Understanding, as a fellow traveler and child of God. So how do we tap into these God given gifts? There is another God given gift, prayer. We can pray. Lizards can’t.  Jesus told us “ask, and it will be given to you”. We can pray, as we heard today in Paul’s the letter to the Colossians, “asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”. We can ask for the Wisdom to discern beyond that first impression, to see the image of God in others. In my morning prayer, when I read that line from Psalm 51, “Open my lips O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise”, I need to stop and think about how I’m going to do that today, with the next human being I encounter. For me, a more appropriate translation might be “O Lord, please don’t let the lizard do the driving today”. Amen.

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