Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Art of Compassion (4/28/13)

The Art of Compassion
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

April 28, 2013

     Isaiah 58:6    
Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?

Luke 4:16-19
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

Our confirmation class is working on statements of faith.  They are being asked to write what they believe.   The model for this is found on the website, This I Believe.    On this website you will find essays written by people stating what they believe.  The essays aren’t necessarily religious in terms of using traditional religious language but they are religious in the sense that Paul Tillich used that word, to address our “ultimate concern.” 

One of the things that religious communities, or houses of worship, such as ours, can do is to encourage each other to take the time and to make the time to address issues of ultimate concern.  This is not a weighty intellectual exercise.   This is a taking stock of who we are and what we are doing.     

What is important to me? 
What are my values?   
About what am I passionate?  
Where do I see brokenness? 
How am I broken? 
Where do I see healing? 
How am I a healer? 
What healing do I seek?  
Am I changing? 
Are my values the same as they were 20 years ago or ten? 
What is emerging now? 

One of the things I tell couples who come for pre-marital counseling, not that I have great wisdom on this, but I have picked up a few lines along the way.  I say, 

“It is OK to change.  Just make sure you tell your partner.”    

 Changing is OK.  We can handle change.  It is trying to deny it or hide it that wreaks havoc.  

Being open about change is good for marriages and relationships.  It is good for churches, communities, even societies.  Who are we?   Where have we been and where are we going?  What is important?  What do we believe?     During this season of Spring we honor the via transformativa, the way of transformation.  The sacred path of compassion and justice.   How are we being transformed?    

Ten months ago today we lost our son, Zachary, to an illness that I don’t know how to name, and one that those of us on the outside looking in cannot see or feel, a sadness of heart too deep, too dark for understanding.    If I were to do what I am asking the confirmation class to do, I am not sure if I could do it.  I don’t know if I can write down what I believe.  

Nothing at this point in my life feels real.   The path that I and my family are on is a sacred path, for sure.   I have no clarity or direction about it.    As I hear the beliefs of others or even of my own from before last summer, they are somewhat interesting, but they seem disconnected, disjointed, and forced. 

My current path is a boat, a small sailboat on a lake.  I cannot see the shore.  The fog is so thick that I cannot count my fingers when I put my hand in front of my face.  It is absolutely still.  No sound.  No wind.  Not even a breeze.    The good news in regards to that image is that I am still afloat.    I am just chilling there.    I have made a choice in my little boat.  I have chosen to sit there and wait.  I have chosen to trust that there will be a breeze sometime, that the sail will fill again and that the fog will lift.    In the meantime, I choose to be present to the fog and to the stillness.   I could choose to panic and pull out a paddle and start whacking at the water just to make noise or movement.    But that seems rather pointless.    I am going to sit and take note of what is there.  

If an image for the via transformativa is a sailboat with a full sail on a clear day, then I am taking that on trust for now.  If God is the wind in the sail, God is also the stillness.  If God is the clear blue sky, God is also the fog.   Transformation happens at times when you are not looking and in unexpected, even non-traditional ways.

Yesterday, I was at the workshop Rebecca Nunley hosted with Russill Paul.  He said something in particular that caught my ear.  He was talking about depression. He said, and I am paraphrasing, that we tend to think of depression as a bad thing. We judge it.  We think it is the absence of God.  He invited us to think of it differently.   He suggested that we try not to judge it but notice it and see it as a sacred path.   It is teaching us something about ourselves and about the Sacred or God.  

That is how I choose to think of grief.  It is not something to get over or to get through.  It is not behavior that needs changing.  It isn’t a condition that needs treatment or even a hurt that needs healing.   It is chilling in the boat in the fog.  The stillness and the fog is not the absence of God but the presence of God.   I am completely surrounded by God and God is absorbed into every cell of my body.  This is the depth of sacred grief.   The not knowing, the not moving, the not seeing, and the non-passion, are not negatives.  This experience is sacred immanence.    

The text for today is Luke’s account of the first sermon by Jesus.   He is handed the scroll and reads this: 

 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

After reading he sits down and says:

“This very day this passage has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Then he goes on to say that this passage is being fulfilled not among the good church folks but through the outsiders, the enemies even.  The people get enraged by this and try to throw him off of a cliff.  He manages to walk through the crowd unscathed. 

All in one day.   

He preaches his first sermon and the congregation tries to throw him off a cliff. That is a tough crowd.  That isn’t what we were taught in preaching school.   You don’t want to do that the first day.   You want to spend some time winning the congregation over and get them on your side.   He didn’t take that class.

What can you say?  He was Jesus.  He had a full sail.  A sail full of Spirit. 

That is how Luke shows us the person and work of Jesus.   He is filled with the spirit of transformation, bringing good news, proclaiming liberation to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.   All of this is beyond artificial boundaries of in and out, chosen and not chosen, us and them.   Spirit knows no boundary.  Jesus is the model of the via transformativa, the way of justice and compassion, the spirit of action, restoration, and wholeness.

That was supposed to be my sermon.   Get out there and find your inner Jesus and live that compassionate spirit for all of creation.    Find your passion.  Clarify your belief statement and live it.  Heal the sick.  Bind up the brokenhearted.  Proclaim justice and compassion in whatever way you do that.    

As I was putting this together, I realized that I am not personally there right now.   A colleague of mine who also lost a son in the same way said that for a long time she had to preach ahead of herself.    In truth, she says she still does.        

I was getting to ready to gear myself up for that, but realized that today I can’t even fake it.   I thought it might be instructive to tell you where I really am.  After all, you might be there, too.  

The story of Jesus preaching his sermon and taking on the cause is a story I know.   I have done that one, and I will probably do it again.    But today, my story is the story that directly precedes this story.    Here is a quiz.  What story in Luke’s gospel comes right before Jesus' first sermon in the synagogue? 

You guessed it.

It is the story of Jesus in the wilderness.   We think this story is about Jesus temptations in the wilderness where he hangs out with the devil.   But that isn’t really the point.   Jesus doesn’t go out there because he thinks it is a good idea. The devil isn’t the main character.   Spirit led Jesus.  Here is the phrase:

“Jesus was led in the spirit through the wilderness for forty days, tempted by the devil.”

The emphasis is that Jesus is in the spirit, led by spirit, accompanied by spirit, infused by spirit.   To use my metaphor, he is in the boat in the fog with no wind. He needs to wait it out.   But it isn’t that he just has to wait it out or get through it or get over it.  What is happening is that this experience is a Sacred experience.   It is sacred and holy time.   He is discovering who he is and who he will be.   The devil acts as a clarifying agent, prodding him to discover his own character.

The metaphor for Spirit in this story is not a full sail.  It is not action.  It is not obvious presence as it is with Jesus preaching and healing and doing.   It is presence but in stillness and in emptiness.    

Perhaps your life experience at this time is one in which you cannot see where you are let alone where you are supposed to go.  Not only can you not see, but you don’t seem to be going anywhere.   Perhaps that is due to loss or change or you aren’t sure what.    

I think what I have been trying to say today is, don’t panic.  

I titled the sermon, “The Art of Compassion.”  I was thinking at the time of it being a sermon encouraging you and all of us to be compassionate to others and to Earth and it is. 

It is also about learning the art of being compassionate toward yourself. 

This is a sacred time.    
You are not alone. 
You are embraced. 
You don’t have to do anything
or plan anything
or be anything.    
Give yourself permission to rest in this moment--   
Surrounded, infused by Loving Holy Spirit.

I’ll do the same.


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