“A man…”, the story begins, and that’s not much of an introduction. “A woman” would have been more interesting, I think, or – better still – “A child.” But, no, there’s nothing special here. Just “A man”. And barely that, because he is almost dead.

Anything he had to attract us is gone. His physical beauty – if he had any – is broken now and spattered with gore and dust. His good clothes – those not wrecked in the mugging – were stripped from his body and jammed into a bag with his watch and wallet and phone. Perhaps he was brilliant or gracious or funny, but not now; only pitiful groans escape his bloody lips. He is the residue that remains when everything else has been taken away – all the symbols of success, all the layers that hide our frailty and nakedness.

As he lies there dying, a stranger comes along, a strong guy of good reputation, the kind who deserves a better introduction than just “A man”. But he is not the sort to get mugged and, frankly, doesn’t think much of people who get themselves into that kind of situation. He sees the wreck and walks on.

A few minutes later, another man of stature, another shake of the head.

And then, a third guy. For him, being called “A man” might be a step up. He’s been called a lot worse. Like the others, he was on his way to do something important. Unlike the others, a man bleeding in the road strikes him as even more important.

You know the rest. The third guy, the guy from whom nothing good is expected, turns out to be the hero; saves the life of a man who might have hated him, too, if he had not been mugged first.

There is often that kind of reversal in Jesus’ stories, a turning upside down of what we teach ourselves to expect. In this story, I think he’s telling us we are all the sort to get mugged, by one thing or another; by cruelty or cancer or age. After all, the cemeteries are full of people who were beautiful and smart and strong, just like we try to be.

He’s also telling us that the things we try to be are something quite different than the rich, deep, and enduring thing he calls “love” which sees great value in life, even when everything else has been taken away.

This story was Jesus’ answer to the haunting question: Am I only this body, and soon to be hidden with it under the earth? Or, to put it another way, is there really something more than this, some way to outlive our bones and find the enduring community we long for?

Jesus said yes, which surprised no one, but they were surprised to hear that mercy figured so prominently in his answer, as if you cannot separate love for God from love for those who suffer. As if it is better to be like the third guy, of whom nothing much is expected, than to be an expert on religion who sees the wreck and walks on.

This story is at the heart of our work. The “mercy” in Wings of Mercy is – we hope – his kind of mercy. The kind that honors God by honoring those who bear his image; knowing we are all, at times, in need of mercy.

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. The life of mortals is like grass. They flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children – with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts.”

Psalm 103

(The story of the good Samaritan is found in Luke 10.)

The Day After

September 12th, 2001. The day after. A nation mourns and the skies are empty… or almost empty. With permission from the FAA, a Wings of Mercy crew flies from Holland, Michigan to Cleveland, transporting Walter Johnson for spinal surgery.

Two years earlier, Walter had been in a car accident and sustained a potentially crippling injury. (The same injury that paralyzed Christopher Reeve – television’s Superman.) Even before the collision, Walter had trouble with his back, cutting short his career with a semi-pro basketball team affiliated with the Harlem Globetrotters, and launching a season in his life of almost perpetual pain.

Looking back in 2011, Walter wrote, “When you do nothing but suffer for twenty years, you turn from the physical side of your life to the spiritual side. Wings of Mercy has not only helped me get to and from my surgeries but has helped me grow spiritually through their compassion for others.”

Paul Elzinga and Kristi Gerritsen piloted the Beechcraft Bonanza on that sober Wednesday, getting Walter to the Cleveland Clinic for the surgery he needed. It was strange to be the only airplane in the sky, strange to be met at the airport by the police and escorted to the hospital, but it was one small way in which our nation carried on and began to heal.