Sermons on compassion
I would like you to imagine with me that what the sons were struggling with, finding the right relationship with, trying to comprehend, was how to engage with and be heirs of the everlasting, always abundant, completely joyous and utterly compassionate love of God.
Though we may find grief is at our core, often it is unchecked assumptions about how life should be, or our childhood beliefs about what is right and wrong, or our privileged status, or the way we expect our lives to turn out, or our own agenda. Regardless, it asks us to join with God to build a life larger than that within us which can consume our lives.
Sometimes I ask God to break my heart with all that breaks his in the hope that I may see with God’s eyes and feel with God’s heart— at least as much as any human can. On those rare occasions when I am able to muster the courage to draw nearer to God’s own broken-hearted compassion— in the face of profound suffering— it guts me, empties me out, and if I endure through this refiner’s fire of love, it ultimately transforms my heart. You know. This is part of the path all of us here walk when confronted with suffering that brings us to our knees.
I know that because there was a woman who twice came through my line and actually said, “I want to have a countenance like yours.” I thanked her but found it odd. Countenance? Who says countenance? Anyway, I figured she was just glad that I was not a grumpy teenager throwing canned goods on her bread. She came through my line a third time and this time she actually said, “I know what it is. Jesus is in you.” I knew that. But I didn’t think someone else would. Most assuredly, I am not a dwelling place for Jesus, but when I am prayed up and open, he can be there for others.
The pilgrims on their ascent up the Mount of Olives reasonably thought power of might won, but we know differently, it is only and always the power of love which will win in the end.
“Jesus entered the house of Simon where his mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she got up and she began to serve them.” Mark 1:29-31 Jesus touched the mother-in-law’s hand. Jesus’ touch healed the mother-in-law. The mother-in-law got up and served them. Jesus touched, Jesus healed, and the recipient of the healing got up to serve, I imagine not as before,…
In Matthew’s gospel, today’s story is Jesus’ last teaching opportunity before he is crucified, so we have to imagine Jesus has saved the most important for last. Jesus is saying to us that our actions matter. We are to be accountable to what Jesus has asked us to do. This really is non-negotiable. You may notice that Jesus’ last teaching has nothing to do with orthodoxy, right belief, or how the church is to be structured, but rather, it’s all about orthopraxy – walking the walk, being authentic, making a difference in the world, being accountable for our choices or the choices others make on our behalf. We are living an authentic Christian life when we receive the bread on Sunday and on Sunday afternoon, as we plan our week ahead, we orient our lives to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and welcoming the stranger. Jesus did all of these things, which is why, when we do them, these moments are sacramental. Take, eat, this is my body, which is given for you. In receiving the broken bread, we become Christ’s body, so that we can see, be, and do for Jesus, so we can be sent out into the world to move it toward justice, where wrongs will be set right, and only God’s love will pour from all hearts.
Because Jesus stayed in the tomb, contained with the earth, with the massive round stone rolled across its entrance, Jesus sanctified, made holy, saturated with the presence of God, the darkened container he was put in, and therefore sanctified all the darkened containers we put ourselves into. But the point of the story of Jesus is that he didn’t stay there. And his resurrection invites and implores us not to stay there either. God’s mercy, love, and compassion draw us into these places of alienation and disconnect. We resist going there often, sometimes by saying, “We’ve always done it that way” as a reason not to move into that place of uncertainty, where the old begins to fade away before we can see the new. Or sometimes we resist the draw into exile because it’s easier to fortify the sides of our containers with bolstered arguments or fiery threats. But the pattern of faithful living, that paschal mystery we often speak of, moves us into a place of exile, of self-reflection, of noticing the places of disconnect between what God has asked of us and what we are doing, to the land, or in our lives, or in our relationship with God, for they are all connected, of acknowledging what we have done or left undone that has caused harm. But then the Spirit turns us again toward God, when God’s mercy, love, and compassion can strip from us all that we have falsely created, to return us to what God has created within and around us. If we listen closely enough, in these times of exile, which our own lives may be in now, or our country may be in right now, we can hear God’s voice saying, “Come and see, I am bringing you to a new way of experiencing me. Come and see.”
Give us this day our daily bread. These are familiar words we pray together every Sunday, right before the bread is broken in the Eucharistic prayer. Have you ever wondered why we pray these words at that particular moment? Right before Jesus’ body is broken so each and every one of us can receive and take within us the holy presence of Christ? Why does it matter to us that this particular prayer is on our hearts when the sunlight from the altar window shines upon the bread, which seems to glow with holiness as I break it apart, so we can each be fed with this sacred meal? Give us this day our daily bread. We don’t say, “Give me this day MY daily bread” – this prayer sets us within a community. The prayer is spoken by all of us, for all of us. It draws us into a place of understanding that we are all equal – equal in God’s love, equal in our share of God’s abundance, equal in the blessing we take out into God’s world, God’s vineyard. One doesn’t get more if one has had an exceptionally faithful week of prayer, scripture study, and good deeds. Nor does one get less if one is kneeling at the rail for the first time in 20 years and had somehow forgotten about God all that time. It is this fact that makes the invitation to the Eucharist so appropriate and poignant, “So come, you who have much faith and you who have little, you who have been here often, and you who have not been for a long time or ever before, you who have tried to follow and all of us who have failed.”
The God who is Love acts – to liberate and save, forgive and heal, acts to empower us to join God in creating that future where everything finally will be reconciled and made whole. So let’s take a look at the condition of our own Christ garment. Where is it frayed, wearing thin, or maybe even starting to tear? Perhaps you are in need of liberation from something that’s dragging you down, holding you back from mirroring Christ’s love. Maybe you have difficulty accepting the fact that God believes you are worth saving. Or maybe there is a situation, a sin, a habit with which we repeatedly wrestle. Perhaps we need assurance of forgiveness and the courage and faith with God’s help, to begin again. Maybe there are tender wounded places in us that need healing, which we keep well hidden. Most of us will have at least one situation where we need the Spirit’s help to put love into action, to let Christ’s light shine through us.
All of our passages today are about new life: the new life being offered in the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, the psalmist calling the bride away from her home, Paul calling the faithful to begin new lives away from the bondage of sin, and Jesus telling his disciples that in their relationship with him, they will find a new understanding of power and of service. New life, in all of these situations, means becoming a stranger to one’s former life, distancing ourselves from who we were, looking at our life from a new perspective, or identifying within the landscape of our soul that which we need to be estranged from, what you need to let go of, all of that which is not of God. This can be an exciting and scary process, and it is always really hard work to allow this transformation to happen. We seem, naturally, to resist this change, but our scriptures give us helpful examples of how to prepare ourselves to do this hard and holy work of becoming a stranger to our old lives. I think it has to do with how we welcome the stranger.
And yet, how can our compassionate hearts not meet these people in the complex layer that lies behind, or beneath, or alongside our rationality in these situations? How do our hearts not break for Hagar, cast out into the wilderness to watch her child die? How could I not have enfolded in my arms that young mother who was allowing a family to be born for others, but not for her. How can we pretend there are children in our societies who go unprotected due to the enslaved condition of their mothers? We can’t and we shouldn’t. We can’t and we shouldn’t dismiss the grief of anyone, whether there were actions or circumstances that should have foretold the impending despair.