Sunday, July 14, 2019

July 14, 2019 - Have Compassion - For Yourself

Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” And what is to love your neighbour as yourself? Who was “a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” “The one who showed him mercy.”

No matter how many times we hear this parable, it always presents us with a challenge. We must always ask ourselves, am I loving my neighbour as myself? Regardless of how we define neighbour, whether it’s our literal neighbour or our global neighbour, this story challenges us to really examine our lives and consider whether we are being “moved with pity” and showing mercy to those who are in need. It forces us to ask, whose suffering do we ignore? Whom do we walk past? Whom do we neglect?

And this is not a general question - this really is about our daily living––at work, in our hobbies, at school, and particularly at home. It’s about whom we consider worthy of our attention and whom we don’t. If you want to know who the neighbour is that you should be loving more, let me ask you: Who are you the hardest on? Who do you hold to the highest standards? Who do you judge the most harshly? Maybe it’s a group of people; maybe it’s an individual. If it’s the latter, I’m guessing maybe it might be a family member. I might ask, who do you coddle the least? Discipline the most? To whom do you show the least mercy? For whom do you have the least pity? Drawing in last week’s sermon, for whom do you have the least compassion?

Love your neighbour as yourself. Who are the people you thought of when I asked those questions, the ones you love the least? Was it someone you get annoyed with at work? Was it a neighbour on the block who never mows their lawn Was it a family member? 

Was it you?

Ah, there’s the rub, as Hamlet says. Love your neighbour as yourself implies that you love yourself. But how many of us can say that we really truly do? Can you honestly say that you love yourself? That you are a good neighbour to yourself? Do you show mercy to yourself or feel true compassion or pity when you look in the mirror after a hard day?

I suspect it’s rather the opposite. In fact, we tend to ignore our own suffering, to neglect our own needs. We are the hardest on ourselves, we judge ourselves the most harshly, we hold ourselves to higher standards than those around us. And when we fail, we say things to and about ourselves that we would never say to or about someone else. We coddle ourselves the least, and discipline ourselves the hardest, and we take pride in that. We feel proud when we say no to ourselves––anybody been on a diet or exercise plan this past year? And we feel shame when we make things easy for ourselves. Honestly, most of the time we love our neighbours better than ourselves. How often have you stayed up late working on something for someone else, rather than going to bed and getting a good sleep? How frequently do you say “yes” to someone else, even though it means a “no” to your own needs? Christians, particularly, in our eagerness to follow Jesus and to love our neighbours as ourselves spend so much time on the first half of that commandment that we forget about the second half. Love yourself.

Now, I could tell you that you have to love yourself, and show compassion and mercy for yourself, because if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. And this is true. We all know about the airplane warning that you have to put your own oxygen mask on first, so you can help the person next to you, otherwise you pass out from lack of oxygen and then you’re both in trouble. You can’t love others, or have compassion for them, if you don’t have love and compassion for yourself first.

But I think we need to take this a step farther. Why is it that we don’t love ourselves as much as our neighbours? Why are we so hard on ourselves?

Well, I think it’s because within the church, we have a deep and ambivalent tradition of seeing humans as sinful. I say ambivalent because on the one hand, using “sin” to describe the human condition can be a helpful way of accepting that humans are not perfect. We do hurt others without meaning to, we are enticed by power, our natural instincts are for self-preservation, not self-sacrifice. We have this inclination inside of us, whether we act on it or not, towards “the dark side.” Saying that humans sin helps us to describe all of this and gives us the vocabulary to address it, and then resist it.

On the other hand, though, too much emphasis on humans as sinful has the dangerous consequence of denying what actually happened through Jesus Christ: that through him, “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, God has forgiven us. God has freed us from the power of sin, which means that sin no longer defines us. God has reclaimed us as children of God. God has made us worthy of love. 

And so, to put it simply, when we treat ourselves as less than others, when we love ourselves less than our neighbour, when we “pass by” our own suffering, we are ignoring, denying even, the power of what God has done in Christ. When your internal running commentary puts you down and says things to you that you would never say to someone else, you are doubting and denying God’s forgiveness of you. I know that we all have those face-palm moments, when we blurt out, “ugh, I’m such an idiot,” or “I’m so stupid,” but saying those things to and about ourselves is, well, wrong. The things you do, the sins you commit, the hurts you’ve caused, they are not stronger than the forgiveness God has brought about through Christ. I’ll say it again: the things you do, the sins you commit, and the hurts you’ve caused are not stronger than the forgiveness God has brought about through Christ.

And so to love your neighbour as yourself is to love yourself with the same compassion and mercy with which God loves you. Don’t think that the Good News, the Gospel of God’s love for all, is meant for everyone but you. It’s meant for you. God has compassion for you. God has mercy on you. God forgives you and cherishes you and loves you. Yes, you are called to do the same for your neighbour. But you are also called to do the same for you.

I said last week that we are called to move beyond tolerating others to having compassion for them, and the same is true here. As a follower of Christ, you are called to move beyond just tolerating yourself to having compassion for yourself. If you are tired, rest. If you are burnt out, don’t keep pushing yourself, have mercy on yourself, and stop. If saying yes to others means saying no to yourself, then for God’s sake––literally––say yes to yourself, even if it means saying no to others. If you are sick, take care of yourself. If you find yourself snapping at someone else and then you judge yourself for that, have some compassion for yourself. God forgives you. You should forgive yourself. Last week I encouraged you to pray for your enemies’ well-being, that they would be happy, that they would not experience suffering. Do that for yourself. Pray for your own well-being. Pray that you would be happy. Pray for yourself that you do not experience suffering. These are not selfish acts. This compassion and mercy is what God in Christ already has for you, just follow Christ in this, as in all other things.

Love your neighbour as yourself. Be moved with pity, and show mercy. Have compassion. For yourself. God loves you, and when you are rooted in that love, and feel it deeply, when you have deep compassion for yourself as God does, you will find it easier to have love and compassion for your neighbour, and even for your “enemy.” In Christ, God has shown mercy on you, Go and do likewise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, July 07, 2019

July 7, 2019 - Beyond Tolerance to Compassion

2 Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 1:1-11, 16-20

Two weeks ago, I talked about how the people of God are called to have one heart, rather than one mind, and about how we can have disagreements in church and still be one people, and I said that I would talk today about how we can do that. How can we be one people, how can we have peace amongst us, or peace in any of our relationships, if we have strong disagreements or strong differences? How can we cultivate one heart and still remain of different minds?

I know that in the church, largely speaking, we have come a long way in accepting difference. Even if we aren’t at the stage of embracing people with different opinions than us all the time, we at least tolerate them. We can all get along––we don’t literally kill like we’ve done in the past. 

But here’s the thing: tolerance does not lead us to one heart. It just leads us to a tentative truce, where we put up with each other, and that’s not enough. Tolerance does not actually offer enough resistance to intolerance, tolerance does not make hate impossible. It’s too similar to indifference. Tolerance is not strong enough to stop disagreements from becoming arguments from becoming hate.

Jesus did not offer tolerance to those who came to him in need of healing. Instead, Jesus offered compassion. Compassion––to suffer with, if we break down the word––is what Jesus had for those he healed, and for us. Compassion is what gives us one heart and makes us one in Christ. Compassion and active love for those who disagree with us is how Christ makes us one. Compassion is how we get recover from church arguments, and, even more, make space for disagreements without having them become divisions in the first place. Compassion is what we have for those whom we love but with whom we disagree. Compassion for one another is what allows the church to disagree but not divide over things like women pastors, offering Communion to children, worship styles, or marrying LGBTQ+ couples. Compassion is what allows us to discuss difficult topics like immigration, climate change, pipelines, or federal elections without rancour. Compassion allows each of us to live out our faith in our own ways without judging or condemning others who do it differently. We can fundamentally disagree on certain issues if we have compassion for each other, if we remember that we share one heart.

God calls us to have compassion for one another, not just tolerance. God calls us to have a heart for others. The Israelite slave girl, in our Old Testament reading, tells her master, Naaman, where he can go for healing. Did you catch the significance of that? This enslaved girl, who has every right to ignore her master’s suffering, or at least to tolerate it, actively seeks to end it. She has compassion for her enemy, she has a heart for him. And then, when Naaman follows her advice, the prophet Elisha, too, shows compassion and tells him what to do to be healed. Elisha did not have to do that. Elisha is a prophet of God, called to serve the people of Israel. Naaman is an Aramean, a military enemy of Israel, who worships a God called Rim’mon or Ba’al, not in any way recognized as one of the people of Israel. And yet Elisha has compassion, and God heals Naaman. And when Naaman makes it clear to Elisha that he will continue to serve the king of the Arameans––not the king of Israel, and continue to visit the temple of Rim’mon, Elisha sends him on his way in peace. Elisha doesn’t take back the healing, or curse Naaman or his king, or harden his heart. Elisha allows their religious and geopolitical differences to remain and says, go in peace.

Jesus, too, calls his disciples to have compassion for those who are different from them. When he sends them out, he tells them that the first thing they are to do when they enter a village is to say, “Peace.” And he is very clear that these villagers are going to be different than them––they are the wolves who will not agree with the disciples, who might even want to hurt the disciples. And yet, the disciples are to say, “Peace.” They are to be active in their compassion, opening their hearts to others, saying peace first, not waiting for it to be said to them before they respond. And if the others respond with “peace,” great. And if they don’t, the disciples are to continue to respond with compassion––not to curse those who reject their peace, not to be stubbornly silent, but to say to them as well, “the kingdom of God has come near,” just as they say to those whom they have healed.

So what does this look like for us, in the here and now? How do we embody this compassion as we go about our lives this week? Well, here are some concrete suggestions, some of which might even sound familiar to you. First, pray for your “enemies.” Pray for those who strongly disagree with you, pray for those who have argued with you. But not that they will agree with you, that’s cheating. Pray for their well-being. Pray for their happiness. Pray that they will not experience suffering. Now, to do that, you might actually have to talk to them, and ask them why they are unhappy, or how they are suffering. You might have to open your hearts to them, which leads us to the second thing: offer to bear their burdens, as Paul said in our second reading. That is, ask them what’s overwhelming for them right now, listen to their complaints (keeping in mind that complaining is what we do when we’re feeling overwhelmed). Extend sympathy–– tell them you wish they didn’t have to feel that pain. You don’t have to agree with someone to say that. And third, wish them peace. As Paul says, we reap what we sow. Resist the temptation to treat them as they’ve treated you. Wish that they may experience love, and acceptance, and not just tolerance but compassion. Wish them healing.

Of course, like all worthwhile endeavours in our lives, this is easier said than done. It is not easy to walk into a room filled with people whom you know don’t want you there, who do not wish you well, and genuinely wish them peace. It’s not easy to hear that something bad has happened to someone who’s said hurtful things to you, and feel bad for them and actively try to help them. It’s not easy to welcome our “enemies” into our hearts, as people worthy of the same care and sympathy and understanding that we wish for ourselves. And yet, this is what we are called to do. We are called to have compassion and to wish peace and to think of ourselves as sharing one heart with those with whom we fundamentally disagree. I am called to have compassion and to share a heart with a certain world leader whose policies are deeply troubling, even abhorrent, to me. Really. To say it’s not easy is probably an understatement.

But it is not impossible. And I say that because of the source of this compassion. It’s important to be clear here that when I say compassion, I don’t mean our own personal compassion, I mean the compassion of God that flows through us. You see God is the one who truly has compassion for all, and God uses us to make that compassion real for others. Our role is simply to let that compassion flow. Our role is not to decide who should receive that compassion, or to restrict it, or to limit it to only the deserving. Our role is to be an open conduit through which God’s compassion can flow to others. You see, Naaman wasn’t healed by Elisha’s compassion, but by God’s compassion that flowed through Elisha. The people healed by the disciples of Jesus weren’t healed by the disciples, but by Jesus’, and God’s, compassion flowing through the disciples. Our compassion doesn’t bring us together so that we are of one heart. God’s compassion does that. God’s compassion comes to you, flows through you, and then leads you and those around you all back to God’s heart.

Which is where we are one. This is the key to all of this, to bringing us to one heart in our disagreements. The key is that it’s not about us, it’s about God’s actions in and through us. It’s what we call grace. Grace is God gathering all of our differences together into God’s generous embrace. Grace is how God heals us and brings us together in peace. Grace is God’s compassion for all of us.
We are called to allow ourselves to be of one heart, to allow ourselves to be one in God’s heart. We are called to allow God’s spirit––a spirit of gentleness––to move us beyond tolerating difference to being unblocked channels of God’s compassion for others, especially for those who disagree with us. We are called to be open so that God can bring us together in one heart, so that together we might know God’s love for us. But we are called to do this through God’s grace, through God’s Spirit, which God extends to us regardless of whether we are able to pass it on. And for this we say, thanks be to God, Amen.