Friday, June 12, 2020

Empathy Comes To Town

Poem/Reflection for 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (proper 6)     St. Andrew's Church, Nags Head, N.C. June 14, 2020                                                                               Thomas E. Wilson, Supply Clergy

Genesis 18:1-15        Psalm 116:1, 10-17                 Romans 5:1-8           Matthew 9:35-10:8    

Empathy Coming To Town

This is the second of a series of three reflections and poems focusing in on the Trinity. Last week, I shared a metaphor that I found helpful from Dr. Alan Keith Lucas, my Thesis advisor and a Professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Keith was writing about the nature of a helping relationship that had to have three elements: Reality, Empathy and Support. He called it a Trinity, because if you leave any part of the relationship out, there is no relationship and we just end up wasting our time, and the time of whomever we are in relationship with.

Born in 1910 in England, and graduating from Cambridge University with Honors in 1931 and a Master's in English in 1935, Keith had started his life as an “Ethical Humanist” and saw no reason for a concept of God to muddy the waters of his life. He started his professional life a teacher and then headmaster of a school where he found himself helping students.  It is in that helping process with the students when he was a teacher and headmaster that he started to experience an awareness of something beyond just business as usual; that we were not placed on this earth to teach subjects or to keep order. He came to the United States in 1937 and got a Master's Degree in Social Work and became an American Citizen in 1943 and joined the US Army during World War II. In 1950 he came to Chapel Hill to join the faculty of the School of Social Work until his retirement in 1975. I was one of the speakers at his retirement because I felt that he had helped me grow Spiritually. I deeply mourned him when he died in 1995.

Over the years of his career, Keith had been deeply interested in the interplay between religion and the helping of people and how people of faith might use their faith to work with people in helping relationships. In conversations with him he would weave in stories of religious people of empathy, like Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day in the 20th and in the 4th, St. John Chrysostom; all of them always getting into trouble  because they cared. Chrysostom was a Bishop in the nominally Christian Roman Empire and his empathy for the poor would always be disturbing to the authorities who wanted order and business as usual. In a homily on the Gospel of Matthew, Chrysostom preached:

Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: "This is my body" is the same who said: "You saw me hungry and you gave me no food", and "Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me"... What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.

You may already know Chrysostom's name for it is his prayer we say at the end of Morning Prayer:  

Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplication to you; and you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.

In the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus sends out his disciples, telling them to enter into relationship with the people of the land;

“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.. . .As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of the  heavens has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

The Disciples came to different towns in Jesus' name armed with Jesus' compassion. The Greek word that Matthew's editor uses is Σπλαγχνίζομαι –  splagchnizomai  which means literally that your insides are in an uproar. The word is also in the aorist tense. We don't have an aorist tense in English, we just have past, present and future. The aorist tense suggests something that is not confined to a moment in time but continuing. The translator you have says, in good English, “Jesus had compassion on the crowds”, as an event in time. With aorist tense I would translate it as “Jesus compassioning” which is not a good English word, but it is true. Being moved with compassion means that you can't just sit there and do nothing. This is a human being who is going through a rough time. Compassion, empathy, is not pity where you are safely removed from the object, so all you feel is sorry for them. Empathy is a continuing act of active imagination where you are feeling in your gut what it must feel like for the other, and for the Christ in you, as you are moving to help. It will always be their problem, but they don't have to carry it alone.

Aristotle suggested that there was an unmoved mover behind all of creation, once the laws of motion and cause and effect are placed into being, where good deeds bring about good rewards and bad deeds bring on bad rewards. Its karma, and in karma there is no room for grace. We just have to accept the situation. You reap what you sew.  God is in Heaven and you are not; all based on what you or your ancestors have done. Don McLean in his song, American Pie casts an image of what that world looks like:

I went down to the sacred store where I'd heard the music years before, but...
The man there said the music wouldn't play
And, in the streets the children screamed, the lover's cried, and the poets dreamed, but...
Not a word was spoken - the church bells all were broken
And, the three men I admire most: the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they...
Caught the last train for the coast the day the music died

But Jesus' message is that the “Kingdom of the Heavens”, Matthew's circumlocution for the presence of God, is coming near. God is not the unmoved mover up above the skies somewhere, or catching the last train to the coast, but right here and now, so close that it is impolite to refer to God in the third person as if s/he were not in the room with us. The Disciples are part of that healing, their insides roiling with compassioning as action is put into play.

16th century Spanish mystic Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila, had a prayer which reminded her, and us that we are not just to sit back and say, “Ain't it awful.”

“God of love, help us to remember that Christ has no body now on earth but ours, no hands but ours, no feet but ours. Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world. Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now. Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, Ours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Amen.”

In a couple weeks you are going to have your new Rector come to lead worship with you and be with you as a living image of the Trinitarian God, joining with you who are also living images of the Trinitarian God. He and you will enter into a covenant with each other to remind each other that the Kingdom of the Heavens has come near to you and to this community in which we live.

Like God the Father, he will be real with you, to tell you the truth as he has the grace to see it, and not to play “let's pretend”. In response, you will be real with him, telling him the truth as you have the grace to see it. His task as God the Son is to enter into your broken lives without pity or blame but with empathetic compassioning; as you will enter into his brokenness without pity or blame but with empathetic compassioning. His task as God the Holy Spirit will be to offer his support in your walk of faith in this world as you will offer him support.

Next week we will look at what that support will look like.

Empathy Coming To Town

He looking, thinking: “This ain't right!

My gut's telling me, you don't stand by!

Get up! Don't be content with just a sigh

of pity, but rage as compassion might!”

Yet, hold a moment and breathe in deep,

for this passion's needing listening spirit,

guiding action, not reaction without limit,

but in Reality's plan that will healing reap.

We are not in this alone, but heaven's here,

in the space between us. Begin as we must,

knowing the Divine is in whom is our trust,

not in our words and thoughts but in prayer,

in this real world, with empathy and support,

coming to town, Christ's presence to report.

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