February 1, 2015
I am fully aware this morning that I am preaching to the choir. Everything that Jesus does in the passage from Luke, you have done, or would do, given the chance. I am so grateful to be able to serve as your pastor. At our charge conference last October, our District Superintendent, the Rev. Pat Simpson, praised us because of our hands on ministry in our community. She told us that many churches engage in mission financially, but we are one of the few churches in which a large number of members are personally involved in ministry and outreach to the community. I don’t think there is any entity that serves the welfare of this island in which someone from this church is not involved—on the board or as a volunteer. This church—and by that I mean the people, not the building—makes a significant difference in our community.
I wonder if, instead of preaching today, I might start a serious conversation, deeply committed Christian to deeply committed Christian? The apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are (Rom. 12:14-16).” I have been caught by my heart this week by someone weeping over racial injustice. I have heard not one, but three people, three beautiful children of God, describe how they have experienced discrimination because of the color of their skin or their national origin. I have a pretty good social justice ethic, but I don’t know what to do with this. I want to do something, but I don’t know how to begin. I don’t know where to begin. I’m not sure that we’re supposed to figure out what to do before we figure out how to be. How to be fully present to someone whose life experience is so different from mine? How to enter into a loving conversation that might be helpful? Then what to do that would effect change?
It occurs to me that because of the accident of my birth, I find myself living comfortably within the dominant culture without having to think about it. My privilege stretches out in front of me and blocks my vision without my even knowing it. I have never been denied a place to live. My children have never been stopped for driving while being black. I have never been refused service anywhere. I think that means that I need to seek out opportunities to listen—and learn. I was lucky enough in my early twenties to live in Japan for almost two years. Some of you have had similar experiences of being the minority and not speaking the language or knowing the customs; of driving on the opposite side of the road. It was an eye-opening experience for me to see that there are other ways to live that are different—not better or worse—just different. I love it that you read about other cultures with such openness. I am so appreciative of your good hearts and desire to learn. That’s why I want to be in conversation with you. I know that learning to understand and appreciate other cultures is part of the solution. Does education alone dispel fear and bigotry?
I’ve taken this book, With Open Hands by Henri Nouwen, the beloved spiritual writer, off my shelf as I’ve taken this pain to prayer. Nouwen believes that our compassion starts with prayer. He wrote:
As your life becomes more and more a prayer, you not only come to a deeper insight into yourself and your neighbor, but you also develop a better feeling for the pulse of the world you live in. If you are really praying, you can’t help but have critical questions about the great problems with which the world is grappling. . . .
Compassion grows with the inner recognition that your neighbor shares your humanity with you. This partnership cuts through all walls which might have kept your separate. Across all barriers of land and language, wealth and poverty, knowledge and ignorance, we are one, created from the same dust, subject to the same laws and destined for the same end. With this compassion you can say, “in the face of the oppressed I recognize my own face and in the hands of the oppressor I recognize my own hands.
That’s a challenge to me. Is my prayer deep enough to come to a deeper insight into myself and my neighbor and to raise critical questions?
Jesus was great at asking critical questions. He was moved by the struggles of the people who sought him out and challenged the systems that overlooked their suffering. In the gospel reading that we heard today, Jesus moved from children to adults with great interest in spending time with them and knowing their struggles. He ate with people that would have been considered “others” or outsiders and really seemed to enjoy being with them. Then Jesus acted with love and compassion, often counter to the beliefs of those around him. I wonder if sometimes his loving actions were not also intended to provoke the heartless reactions of the keepers of the law and the status quo. Brian McLaren gives us a good example from Luke’s gospel:
Once [the Pharisees] criticized Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath. . . . Jesus asked them a question: If your son—or even your ox—falls in a hole on the Sabbath, will you wait until the next day to rescue it? By appealing to their basic humanity—kindness to their own children, if not their own beasts of burden—he implied that God must possess at least that level of “humanity.” In so doing, Jesus proposed that basic human kindness and compassion are more absolute than religious rules and laws.
Basic human kindness and compassion. Aren’t those all we need to listen deeply and to be fully present to one another? Isn’t that how we enter into the world of another person and share their joy and their pain? Could basic human kindness and compassion be the source of healing and impetus for our actions?
I agree with Henri Nouwen that compassion starts with prayer, with knowing ourselves; with being met by God in the deepest part of our being, in our joy and in our sorrow, so that we can recognize our common humanity with our neighbor, so that we may rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. I would love to have this conversation as a community of faith and would hope that the conversation might deepen our prayer life individually and as a community.
May you hear this blessing for yourself and for your neighbor.