Wherever You Go

Date: June 30, 2019/Speaker: Jon Hauerwas

Wherever You Go

Psalm 72:11-15, 20 and Luke 9: 51-62

In 1927, a storm sewer line was installed here in Akron beneath what was then known as Tallmadge Parkway. Over the next three decades, the pipe deteriorated badly while the problem went undetected. News reports from July 21, 1964 state that 3 inches of rain fell on the city of Akron in less than an hour. When this occurred, a surge of rainwater tore the sewer line open. “The underground flood began eroding the surrounding soil and undermining the roadway above.” [1]

Earlier that day, “Akron resident Velma Shidler braved the storm to take her daughter Claudia, age 10, and Claudia’s best friend Janet Lewis, age 13, to a swimming lesson at Firestone High School. The class ended just after 3 pm. The three dashed through the rain once again, got in Velma’s 1962 Corvair, and headed toward home in Goodyear Heights.” [2]

“Their path, from the west side to the east, would take them across Tallmadge Parkway. That section of the parkway, east of Aqueduct Street,” and just down the hill from King School, “plunges toward the Little Cuyahoga River valley before climbing upward. Velma Shidler’s Corvair never made it that far. She was nearly at the bottom of the hill, just past the railroad trestle overpass that can still be seen today, when the roadway caved in.” [3]

“According to witnesses and the account Shidler later gave to police, the sinkhole opened directly in front of her, spanning from the right berm of the road into the adjoining lane. She didn’t have time to stop, and instead tried to swerve to the left. The hole widened. Her car tipped backward and slid in. The chasm was more than 40 feet deep.” [4]

After plummeting downward, the car’s back window shattered. Velma’s daughter, Claudia, tumbled through it. The mother desperately reached out for her daughter, but Claudia slid from her grasp. Velma then “pulled Janet into the front seat and held onto her as more dirt and pavement fell onto the car from the lip above, and the roar of rushing water grew around them.” [5]

“Back on the surface, several motorists had seen the accident or arrived on the scene just after it happened. A workman took an extension ladder from his truck, and finding it not long enough to reach the bottom of the hole, tied a length of rope to the top rung and lowered it down. [6]

“A 19-year-old man volunteered to climb in for the rescue. His name would become known throughout Akron, although his family was already familiar enough. He was Hugh O’Neil, grandson of the founder of General Tire and son of the founder of the downtown O’Neil’s department store.” [7] The family home, located next door to our church, is now a bed and breakfast.

“Hugh tied a second length of rope around his waist and began his descent. Akron Police Officer Ronald Rotruck arrived, quickly assessed the situation and elected to join O’Neil. He removed his hat and gun belt, then tied himself off, and had the workman lower him in. The two worked together to pull Velma and Janet from the car, and helped them begin ascending the ladder. From there, the workman and others on the surface lowered ropes to pull them out.” [8]

The hole collapsed further and more water began to flood in. The workman fell but was quickly rescued by Akron firefighters arriving on the scene. The crew spotted a pair of hands emerging from the muck and lowered a ladder to within reach. That person – no one is sure if it was the police officer or O’Neil – briefly grasped the ladder but then let go.” Velma and Janet were rescued. Both survived the ordeal. But “Ronald Rotruck, Hugh O’Neil, and Claudia Shidler were never seen alive again.” [9]

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the story dominated the Akron news cycle. The parkway was closed for weeks for the necessary repairs. “City Council proposed renaming the route ‘Rotruck-O’Neil Parkway,’ but both families explained that seeing those names on maps and road signs would be too painful. So a compromise was reached and the section of roadway between West Tallmadge Avenue and North Portage path became ‘Memorial Parkway.’” [10]

Jesus, much like those courageous men in 1964, laid down his life for complete strangers. He began his earthly ministry in his home region of Galilee, where his baptism was quickly followed by rejection in Nazareth. And now, the transfiguration is quickly followed by more rejection in Samaria. [11]

If you’ve ever heard a sermon on the parable of the Good Samaritan, you likely know why “good” and “Samaritan” were rarely uttered in the same breath. Samaritan villages had a reputation for refusing to receive Jewish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. And “later in the first century, a serious incident that led to the removal of Herod Antipas from office began with a massacre of Jewish pilgrims in Samaria. [12] Understanding this historical animosity, “one can almost appreciate the anger of James and John over the refusal of hospitality to Jesus.” [13] “Lord,” they say, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

Sadly, Jesus’ followers have forgotten that his “mission was not to destroy but to save and to reconcile.” [14] So, too, they have also failed to understand that “Christians are not to lash out, condemn, or despise those who reject the gospel we offer.” For to do so is counter to Christ’s intentions and “closes us off to other opportunities to ministry with them.” [15] In response, “Jesus rebukes James and John for an attitude of revenge and retribution, an attitude totally foreign to his ministry and theirs.” [16] And he reminds them that, when rejected, they are simply to move on to a place in which they might be more readily received.

Once again, Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem. He is heading not only toward the holy city “but also toward his destiny.” [17] And given the uncompromising nature of the cross, he reminds would be followers that, in joining him on the path to his ultimate rejection, “there is no place for rash promises or misunderstandings” regarding the steep cost of discipleship.

Jesus tells his followers that he will be rejected and despised, that he has nowhere to lay his head, and that following him is more important than every other duty, including care for self and family. [18] Stated simply, “the radical demands of discipleship require that every potential disciple consider the cost, give Jesus the highest priority in one’s life, and, having committed oneself to discipleship, move ahead without looking back.” [19]

Hugh O’Neil and Ronald Rotruck were on a mission to save lives. And they were willing to forfeit their own well-being in an effort to serve strangers in need. They committed themselves to a greater purpose and they never looked back. And that is why we honor them, along with countless others who put everything else in life on hold so that they might love their neighbors as themselves. May it be so and all thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] http://thedevilstrip.com/akron-arcana-memorial-parkway-sinkhole/?preview=true&_thumbnail_id=26235&fbclid=IwAR1TMXm9uYwObrXe7YgG2v-E6OPcLSBDdX2Dn30TACI0jjTOIL0SRgmDCI0. Accessed on June 27, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid

[11] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed. James Luther Mays (Westminster John Knox Press, 1990), 142.

[12] Alan Culpepper, Luke, The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Volume IX, ed. Leander Keck (Abingdon Press, 1996), 215.

[13] Ibid., 143.

[14] Ibid., 215.

[15] O Wesley Allen Jr., Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, Year C, Volume 3, ed. Joel B. Green. (Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 121.

[16] Ibid., 143.

[17] Ibid., 120.

[18] Ibid., 216.

[19] Ibid., 218.

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