Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Life of Compassion

This sermon is the first of six that will lift up the six core values discerned to guide Central Woodward Christian Church.
John 11:28-35

When we gathered in February for a retreat, we discerned six core values that define our mission and vision as a congregation. We discerned these values in a context of prayer, worship, and study. We talked about our community and what it means to be a Disciple in the context of this community, beginning with our 5-mile radius, and expanding outward in concentric to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). As we discerned these values, we assumed that we are called to be a missional congregation, and that these values will help guide our practice of mission. It’s been a few months since we met, and with a new season of ministry in front of us, over the next two months we will explore these six core values in a series of sermons.

As we think about these six core values – compassion, service, acceptance, worship, witness, and spiritual joyfulness – we need to remember that there isn’t any particular order or ranking to these values. Each is equally important to our life together. But, since it’s first on the list, we’ll start with compassion, a value that fits well with the new Disciple identity statement, which reads:

We are Disciples of Christ,
a movement for wholeness
in a fragmented world.
As part of the one body of Christ,
we welcome all to the Lord's Table
as God has welcomed us.

1. Jesus is our Model

As I was thinking about how to preach on this core value, I knew I had to choose a text that would fit the theme. The one that came to mind was John 11, where Jesus mourns the death of a close friend, a man named Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. John 11 is well known to many Christians as the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, but we didn’t read that far into the story. Instead we stopped at what is often known as the briefest Scripture text, “Jesus wept” (KJV). I had us stop here, because that verse, and the words that precede it underline the centrality of compassion to the ministry of Jesus and the ways of God. The passage that precedes this word about Jesus weeping tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” What is important here is not that Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, so he could die at a later date, but that Jesus acted from this deep sense of emotion called compassion.

If we affirm the principle that Jesus incarnates the word and wisdom of God, then we should affirm that he reveals to us the heart of God, which is full of compassion. Strangely, even though the Bible is full of texts that speak of God’s love and compassion, traditional theology, which has been deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, makes this impossible. Greek philosophy insisted that emotion was a sign of weakness, and therefore God must be “impassible.” That is, if God is perfect, then God is incapable of change or of feeling.

But is this the God of the Bible or the God revealed in the person of Jesus? Jurgen Moltmann, whom I had the privilege of hearing speak this past week, answered this question with this response: “An impassible God is not God, but a demon.” He went on to say that if God is apathetic, that is, without passion or compassion, then God will be “apathetic toward us.” But as we read here, Jesus was deeply moved, and in this he reveals to us the heart of God, which is compassionate and not apathetic.

2. Compassion and Empathy

There is another word that goes with compassion and that word is empathy. You may have heard this word recently in the news, because there was a lot of debate up on Capitol Hill about it. The context was the Supreme Court hearings, and the question was whether an empathy standard was appropriate for a judicial nominee. I won’t go into that debate, but I do believe that there is an empathy standard for the church.

So what is empathy? According to the dictionary definition, it involves such attitudes and actions as understanding, awareness, and sensitivity. One online dictionary puts it this way:
The ability to understand another person’s circumstances, point of view, thoughts, and feelings. When experiencing empathy, you are able to understand someone else’s internal experiences.
And, interestingly enough, certain psychiatric disorders, such as “autism, antisocial personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder, have been associated with a lack of ability to empathize (or experience empathy).”

While I don’t wish to wade into the political debate, it does appear that empathy is a good thing. In fact, to be without empathy is to suffer from a mental illness. Therefore, if we’re going to be a healthy congregation we must be compassionate, and to be compassionate we must be empathetic, which will allow us to walk in the shoes of our neighbors. We can do this by trying to understand the hearts, minds, and situations of our neighbors, so that even if we’ve never experienced what they’ve experienced, we can still understand what they are experiencing.

3. Living Compassionately

Jesus’ compassion, however, went beyond just walking in the shoes of the other, it led him to act. In this case, according to John, moved by his own grief, he chose to raise Lazarus from the dead and restore him to life. Another text that speaks to the way we might live out compassion is the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the Samaritan – a person who was despised by most everyone in Jesus’ audience – offered aid to a man who had been mugged. While this story illustrates what it means to be a good neighbor, it also serves to encourage us to act on our compassion (Lk 10:25-37).

The Letter of James also speaks of the centrality of compassion to the life of faith. James defines true religion in terms of caring for orphans and widows who are in distress (James 1:27). James goes on to say that faith without works is dead– that is, without acts of compassion our faith is meaningless (James 2:14-17).

Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes suggests that compassion is both the source and the manifestation of inner strength. He asks the question – “Could it be that what we must do to stand when others around us are falling is to show compassion, to enter into the shoes and soul of the other?” He goes on to say that compassion is the opposite of fear, because love, which is another word for compassion, casts out fear. Indeed, “compassion has to do with the exercise of that inner strength that allows us power in the face of powerlessness and of the powers-that-be” [Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, (Harper One, 2007), p. 104.]

So, as a missional people who have heard the call to live compassionately, we face the question – How should we live out a compassionate faith? If we were to brainstorm, I expect that we could come up with a myriad of possibilities. But, in the interests of time, I’ll just mention a few, some of which are already occurring in our congregational life.

I’ll begin with our S.O.S, because just about a month from now, we’ll be hosting a homeless shelter for a week. This is an act of compassion because it is a response to Christ’s call to serve and love our neighbor. In this case we will make room for those needing a roof over their heads and a meal to sustain them. Anne will be organizing this ministry – so be sure to see her soon.

The Stephen Ministry program is another place where we can live out compassionate ministry. Stephen Ministers are equipped and released to minister to those experiencing physical, emotional, and spiritual need. If you feel called to such a ministry, I know that there’s a new training session about to begin, so see Flo.

But compassionate ministry isn’t just expressed through organized activities. It occurs whenever we sit and listen to someone who grieves or hurts. It can happen when we mow a lawn or paint a wall for someone who is physically unable to accomplish this task. It might involve providing meals for a person who is hungry. Or, it may simply involve offering a shoulder to lean on. This value should also influence the way we live our public lives, including the way we vote. So, for instance, as you consider how to respond to the ongoing health care debate, it would be important to ask about the role compassion should play in your response? I believe this is why Sharon Watkins, our General Minister, spoke out so strongly for health care reform. And, Michael Kinnamon reminded us at the General Assembly that a commitment to Christian unity should include a call to peace. He asked us how we might bring healing to a fragmented world while engaging in or supporting acts of violence?

Jesus told stories, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, so that we could get inside the hearts and minds of others. As we hear that well-known parable, can we put ourselves into the shoes of the one lying in the ditch, the ones who passed him by, and the one who reached out to him. If we can put ourselves into the parable, then perhaps we can understand what it means to be a compassionate congregation.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 13, 2009

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