November 6, 2016- “Being the Church: Loving with Empathy and Compassion”

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

John 11:17-36

“Being the Church: Loving with Empathy and Compassion”

The sermon I am going to share with you today was written by the Rev. Emily Bisset. It is part of a series on “Being the Church,” which we have been reflecting on in worship over the last several weeks. Today’s theme is “Loving with Empathy and Compassion” – something that we are both called and equipped to do in our church communities.

In 1964, Shel Silverstein published the book, “The Giving Tree.” While it is a classic now, it caused almost immediate controversy. Just exactly what was this story about: the tree, depicted as a female, gives everything she has to the boy, who takes it all seemingly without much gratitude. The boy keeps coming back again and again, needing something different. Each time, the tree offers what she has, until there is nothing left of her but a stump.

Some rejected the book immediately, saying it represented an unhealthy, lopsided relationship. Some loved the book, saying that it beautifully depicted selfless, self-giving love. People saw in its pages the relationship of a parent and child, and others saw the relationship between God and God’s people. In 2007, there were over 8 million copies in print, and in one teacher survey the book was in the top ten list of children’s books.

We in the church have always played with two different kinds of love: mutual love and self-less love, philia and agape, human love and God love. We have debated a lot about which kind of love God expects of human beings. We have wondered how to achieve such love. We have failed on both kinds of love – over and over again. But we still hold both as ultimate measures of our life, our faith, biblical interpretation, and the purpose of the church in the world.

This morning, we heard a portion of the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The backdrop of the story is the rising tension and power play between Jesus and the religious authorities. But Jesus has no interest in power play. He has interest in bringing life out of death. He has interest in showing – through action and example – what God is all about. He has interest in friendship.

In some ways, it is the glimpse into how Jesus offers friendship that is the most interesting in this story. Lazarus, and his sisters Mary and Martha, are not just people that Jesus meets on the roadside. They are not strangers in one of the town that Jesus and the disciples are passing through. They are Jesus’ friends, perhaps some of the best friends he has in the world.

When he finally arrives in Bethany, he knows that Lazarus is dead. He is, in some ways, prepared for that. But what he isn’t prepared for is the intense grief of his sisters. In their grief, and anger, and deep sadness, they lash out at Jesus with words that cut him to the core, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And Jesus empathizes so deeply with his friends, that he too weeps. It is the only place in all the stories of the life and death of Jesus, where such a thing is recorded. Deeply disturbed by the grief of those he loves, Jesus is moved to incredible action.

Of course, this isn’t the only place that Jesus shows empathy. In fact, it is central to everything Jesus stands for, and it is a key insight into the character of God.

It is why God sent Moses to deliver the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.

It is why God sent manna in the wilderness.

It is why God sent prophet after prophet to lead and guide and save people from the destruction they so often brought upon themselves.

It is why God finally comes to the earth in Jesus Christ – to empathize with us – flesh and bone, temptation and pain, joy and grief, despair and hope. And those who wish to be followers of Jesus are called to that same kind of empathy.

Empathy – and the crucial importance of empathy in living a meaningful life – is one of the things that the Christian church is still teaching and emphasizing as central to human existence. It is one of our gifts – that needs, perhaps now more than ever, to be stewarded and nurtured and tended, in a society where empathy may be endangered.

There was a study done a few years ago by the University of Michigan[1], that found that the university students of the first decade of the 21st century were far less empathetic than the students of the 1980s and 1990s. This study was the subject of a fairly recent CBC program.

Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research, found that when compared to college students of the late 1970s, ‘college students today are less likely to agree with statements such as “I sometimes try to understand my friends better by imagining how things look from their perspective” and “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me.”’ They are less likely to agree.

There could, of course, be many reasons for this – and many exceptions – but one concern that Konrath and her student, Edward O’Brien raised was the pervasiveness of social media. We live in a culture where there is less face to face interaction, and more text to text or email to email interaction.

O’Brien said, “The ease of having ‘friends’ online might make people more likely to just tune out when they don’t feel like responding to others’ problems, a behavior that could carry over offline.”

This rising lack of empathy is blamed for many things, including the pervasiveness of bullying and the newer beast called cyber-bullying. Not having to see people – talk to people – look them in the eye, imagine what life feels like from their perspective makes it much easier to distance ourselves – and objectify them.

But it isn’t just a new generation and certainly not just university students… It is all of us – in our busy-ness, in our scheduled lives, in our fast-paced existence.

That is why it is all the more important that we have this story of Jesus, at the side of his friends, as they together mourn the death of Lazarus.

The church, when it is being the church, teaches empathy in part through its pastoral care, and in part through its outreach and service.

We encourage a kind of care that identifies with another person’s suffering and that kind of care that traverses many phases of life. It requires a depth of friendship and intentionality and a slower pace – or at least carving out time in the midst of the fast pace.

In the church, we are shaped by such maxims as the great commandment to love your neighbour as yourself. But it does not stop there.

We believe God asks us to extend empathy beyond our relationships with family and friends – our neighbours are not only the ones we want to spend time with –indeed, that understanding of neighbour is not what the Christian church teaches.

Rev. Emily Bisset tells a story about her daughter Rachel when she was five, and in Senior Kindergarten. One day, Rachel got to be the special helper in her class, which includes the responsibility of choosing a partner to take the attendance sheet to the office. The special helper gets to choose anyone she wants.

Emily asked her daughter, “So who are going to pick to be your partner?”

“Solomon,” she said.

Emily had already heard a lot of stories about the other children – her friends whom she loves, the ones who are silly and make people laugh, and perhaps especially, she had heard about the bad ones.

Solomon was one of the bad ones. He is gets in trouble ALL THE TIME – he has his name written on the board, he gets lots of warnings, he gets sent out of the classroom, at least a couple times a week. He’s the class troublemaker. And Rachel is, by nature, a rule-keeper.

Genuinely surprised, Emily asked, “Solomon?  Why are you going to choose Solomon?”

“Because,” she replied, “No one ever picks Solomon and he really, really, really wants to be picked.”

In the church, we are called to view one another, not as everybody else does, not from a human point of view, but as a new creation of God’s own making. Even in those we do not like or cannot identify with.

The Good Samaritan story, where Jesus defines the word neighbour, teaches us to empathize with the stranger and then take action on their behalf, even if they are the enemy, even if we do not understand their point of view, even if they make us so mad. The gospel’s call to empathy demands far-reaching, as well as close-to-home, actions of love and compassionate justice.

It is Jesus’ empathy with those who mourn, with those who suffer, that gives us a glimpse into the inner life of the God we serve: A God who will not simply stand by as death swallows us one by one. A God who cannot turn a blind eye to our suffering. A God who refuses to leave the world as it is.

The church is called to be an empathetic community. When we share each other’s joys and sorrows we reflect the love of Jesus toward his friends. When we practice empathy, we point towards a different kind of love – that of agape, selfless love –and each act of compassion, stretches us toward that greater love. When we teach such love — or learn such love from the children in our midst, we fulfill the call of God.

May we be the church that God is calling us to be.

[1] (May 27, 2010)  Sara Konrath, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research