It is good to be back among you this morning. Last Sunday I preached and sang for the people of Community United Church of Christ in Fresno. They invited me there to talk about what it means to be an innovative church, a provocative church and a vulnerable church in this fraught and anxious time in human history. What unique role do we have in our culture?
We all reflected on how precious it is to have an inclusive church, to have a holy place where we can show up just as we are and find love, welcome and refuge. What a gift to have this house of God and this community of faith, in this time filled with fear.
When I look at the latest version of the tax bill and when I see that the Children’s Health Insurance Program remains without approval in Congress, it is clear to me that Jesus’ teachings have been distorted enough to condone the lives of the privileged and powerful.
But if we believe that Jesus shows us something about whom God is, then we know that he turns this upside down. Jesus paints a picture for us, of what we are aiming for here on earth and in heaven. Jesus tells us that: there is no hierarchy of human worth. There is no shortage of love. There is no prosperity that does not include us all. In Jesus’ world things are upside down. In Jesus’ world, the Kings let the children eat first. In Jesus’ world healthcare is free for all and mercy is not in short supply. In Jesus’ world our lives are not judged by the height of our towers, but by the depth of our compassion.
That’s the root of the word compassion- to suffer with. Co-passio. Compassion is offering the gift of “withness,” where we are “in it” with someone.
John Wesley, preacher and founder of the Christian Methodism, wrote “One great reason why the rich, in general, have so little sympathy for the poor, is, because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is, that, according to the common observation, one part of the world does not know what the other suffers.”
Compassion is our capacity to suffer alongside others in God-honoring ways. Compassion is the gift of “withness.”
This story we heard from the Book of Matthew is one where Jesus is surrounded by angels and all the world is sitting before him and waiting to hear a judgment, which was one of their main concepts of God, a judge.
This is the final parable in the series of Matthew 24-25. It is a judgment vision over which the Son of Man presides. As one commentator highlighted, “The ethical emphasis is no doubt there: Matthew expects not just words, but deeds — and here, given the dual surprise of sheep and goats, rendered as if the right hand did not know what the left hand was doing! … First, the ones being judged are not Jews nor Jewish Christians specifically, but “the nations.” This is a traditional term for the gentiles. The question that Matthew’s Jesus handles in this vision is not about the ethics of the church or even Jesus’ disciples, but the response to the least of these on the part of the nations,…”
So in spite of what we might have heard in mainstream American Christianity, the judgment on human beings, the judgment upon nations isn’t about which creed was believed, it isn’t about whether you thanked God properly before dinner, it isn’t about how you bowed before the symbols of the Empire, the judgment is about “withness.”
It’s as if Jesus is asking us, “Who were you with in life?” “How did you suffer with those who were hurting the most?”
Jesus says, 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Being hungry and thirsty, being an outsider, being without clothes, being unwell, being imprisoned, these are the most vulnerable of human experiences. I believe that Jesus puts these moments, as the measure, How did you share the suffering of others?
Many of us are taught to avoid what is hard and what hurts and culturally and politically often these things are intentionally hidden.
But Sister Simone Campbell speaks of our need to “walk towards trouble.” When speaking about the stories that unsettled her, broke her heart, undid her for a time and the stories that expanded her view, she said that it is only when she dared to walk toward trouble that reconciliation, healing and hope came into view.
Maybe we avoid “withness” because it is unsettling, it can lead to trouble in a way. It is easier to not show up, to turn away or change the channel or refuse to feel that deep down. But Jesus says to us today that what is needed is Co-passio, “withness,” where we are “in it.”
Recently someone reached out to me, asking for advice on a visit to a dying friend. What should I say? she asked. I told her not to dump her sadness or grief on her, but what mattered most was simply being with her. What is needed is co-passio, being fully with.
This is true for how we are present to others, as much as it is true for how we are called to be present to ourselves. Maybe Jesus was also saying, Truly I tell you, if you love that fearful, angry, jealous, addicted, arrogant, proud, miserly, selfish, mean person you meet hungry out there, you will be able to love at a new level and manage not to run from the pain of finding these things in ourselves…
As Christians we are called to live upside down. We are called to live in Jesus’ world. It is one where the last are first, where healing is readily offered, where grace abounds. In Jesus’ world, our lives are not judged by our privilege or power, or the height of our tower, but by the depth of our compassion- by our openness, to withness. In judgment we won’t likely to be asked what we believed, but how we loved, how did you share the suffering of others?
Because not one of us is unworthy of love. Not one of us should be without nurture. Not one of us should suffer alone.
May compassion abound in this upside down world that Jesus made us, right here and now.