This sermon was the final sermon in a Lenten series on spiritual practices, preached today, Sunday, March 22nd, at the First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, IN.
We have arrived at the last week of our Lenten sermon series on spiritual practices. Thus far, in worship, we have tried on self-examination and confession, slowing or simplicity, taming the tongue, and hospitality. And this week we pick up the practice of compassion. Compassion— the word is compiled from two Latin words for suffering and with— Suffering with. And attending to the roots of this word goes a long way towards helping us to understand what the practice of compassion involves— whenever we attend to the suffering in the world around us, and stand in solidarity with those who suffer, seeking to enter into the pain of our neighbors and work with them towards the passing through of that pain— we are practicing compassion.
Our scriptures tell us repeatedly that Jesus’ life and ministry was marked by compassion— even when he sought to get away from the crowds, to get some rest, when the crowds would find him he would look on them with compassion and teach them, heal them, feed them… again and again he reached out and touched the untouchables of his day; he changed circumstances which had made people outcast in their society, reintegrating them into society; he met people where they were and helped them pass from death to life.
Next week in worship we will focus on the last week of Jesus’ life— we will work our way through a remembrance of the story of his passion— his suffering and death— from the high point of his triumphal entry into Jerusalem to the low point of his death on the cross and burial in the tomb. Many would say that, in fact, Jesus’ death on the cross is the high point of the story. For on the cross Jesus, our compassionate savior, the manifestation of a God who suffers with us, is lifted high for all to see. If the various instances of Jesus’ life and ministry showed Jesus engaged in compassionate acts for individuals and even for crowds… on the cross we see Jesus’ compassion for all of humanity. Jesus suffers with us… that he might open a way to life beyond suffering.
I realize that I run a risk by jumping straight to no less than Jesus Christ, son of God, God with us— as chief exemplar of the practice of the week. Many of us may be inclined to say “Ah well, it must be too much for me… he is perfect. I am imperfect. Maybe I can take a pass on this practice…” But… by virtue of our baptism, we have been made one with Christ— we have been incorporated into the earthly body of Christ— his ministry is now our ministry. Ours together— mind you— no one of us alone can carry on the ministry of Christ. All of us together, with all the baptized Christians across time and space, together we share this work.
Our scripture reading this morning is from a portion of the letter to the Colossians that focuses on the Christian life— both what it is not, and what it is. We read today just the positive teachings about what Christian life should look like. Or, to use the metaphor of the passage, about the clothes that Christians should wear. A striking outfit of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience… an outer coat of love. Before we take a closer look at these clothes, however, I’d like to zero in on the first few words of the passage— “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved”— before telling the Christians of Colossae what they are to do, this letter reminds them who they are. They are chosen, by God; they are set apart in this world as vessels of the divine; they are loved. This is who they are. Chosen, Holy, Beloved. And that’s who we are too.
I spent some time this week thinking about being chosen. The first image that came to mind is of a shy infant or toddler taking a shining to me— perhaps playing peek a boo with me, or flashing a smile at me, or reaching out for me— this is an incredible feeling. You can’t MAKE a baby pick you. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, ah the warm feeling. Maybe babies don’t do it for you… maybe you’d be happiest if a baby never picks you… maybe for you you remember being asked to dance, or play on a team, or serve in leadership, or get married… Each of us has some experience of being chosen in this life and can tap into the special feeling that comes with being chosen. But always when I think about being chosen, I remember times when I have not been chosen… and how lousy that feels. Last one picked in gym class, standing on the wall all night at the school dance, rejected for this or that school or job… surely we’ve all had that experience too. Some time when we were passed over… and it hurt. A lot.
Yes, being chosen— it’s a powerful… and somewhat fraught human experience. I think sometimes when we’re chosen we can get a bit puffed up— we can begin to feel better than— we can become cocky or smug. I think it is not an accident that the list of Christian virtues that follows on this statement of Christian identity directly challenges this very possibility. We are chosen not so that we might be lords over others, but rather so that we might suffer with others, be kind to others, be humble, meek, patient… like Christ, who, as another letter in scripture reminds us, though he was in the form of God did not regard his equality with God as something to be exploited, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…
We are chosen. We are holy. We are beloved. Therefore… we will humble ourselves; we will seek to grow in compassion and mercy right here in our own church family; bearing with one another even when we have legitimate complaints against one another— forgiving as we have been forgiven. I think, actually, forgiveness itself is a great act of compassion. Often we are able to forgive when we realize that the one who has hurt us is him or herself a hurting person.
After I drafted this sermon on Thursday afternoon, late that night when I was getting ready for bed, an old friend reached out via Facebook messenger. She had had one of those days that rocks you to your core, that leaves you doubled over with tears— days when it’s easier to type than to talk. Her abusive father, from whom she has been estranged for years, is now dying. He has sent messages to her through her siblings that he wants her to come see him. But until Thursday she could not. Prior to Thursday, for weeks, months, years… she has been praying for her father, lighting candles for her father… she noticed that she had moved from wishing that he would hurt as badly as he had made her hurt, to realizing that he must have already been hurting as badly as he had made her hurt, and that certainly, now, in a very painful dying process he is suffering profoundly. And she prayed for the peace of his soul, prayed that he would rest with Jesus. But she just couldn’t bring herself to go see him. What if he hurt her again?
But on Thursday, after the long, faithful process of lifting her enemy, her father, to Christ, she found the strength— she is certain it came directly from the Holy Spirit— the strength to drop her guard and go to his bedside. When she arrived he was in and out of consciousness. But when he realized she was there, he told her that he was sorry, so very sorry, and he hugged her, and he cried. She hugged him back and told him that she knew he had had a hard life and that she has been praying for his soul. Her sister later told her that when later in the day he said that he had a dream that my friend had visited, and then heard that it wasn’t a dream, a look came over his face that she had never seen before. Her sister saw a peace in her father she never thought she’d see. My friend heard words she’d never thought she’d hear. She felt love she never thought she’d feel. And she found that at last her bitter resentment that led her to wish her father ill was gone— she was weeping at the end of the day because he was suffering, not because he had caused her to suffer.
The Holy Spirit, the spirit of Christ, gave my friend, and her father, a new wardrobe on Thursday— dressed them in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience… and above all else love… It’s not like that encounter happened in an instant, well, it did… but it grew from years of practice that preceded it— years of formation in Christian faithfulness, within the body of Christ, the church… years of compassionate praying for her enemy… years of stripping off the old clothes and being fitted for new.
I am confident that the Holy Spirit dwells among us. I have had so many confirmations of that in recent weeks. I sense that the Spirit of Christ is moving among us, flitting about like a personal stylist in a fine boutique, assembling Easter outfits for each of us— pulling compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, gratitude off the racks and passing them to us to try on for size. I’m certain that the Spirit is wrapping each of us in love. We are, afterall, God’s chosen ones… holy, and beloved. The Spirit of God is joyfully re-clothing us, making us into new creations. O friends, what good news, how can we keep from singing?
The story shared near the end was shared with the permission of the woman who told it to me. I promised to maintain confidentiality when sharing it.
Image from here.