Wednesday, June 5, 2013
"From the Teacher's Mouth" - Sermon
From the Teacher’s Mouth
As you have already heard, this month we are focusing on the theme of Compassion in our worship services. Regardless of particular theological or political convictions, the principle of compassion rests at the heart of every religious tradition. That common thread could be the basis for many, many sermons. But it occurred to me, to take two of these traditions, the two that I am most familiar with and compare what their teachers had to say on the topic. I decided to compare the teaching of Jesus and the Buddha about two months ago.
And it in a really lovely coincidence, today we are joined by a colleague of mine, Rev. Ken Collier. He will be talking with you all more after the service about the process of searching for a new minister. And since it is Sunday, we also have a really nice opportunity to worship together.
It’s a rare treat to get to preach with someone. I have asked Ken to approach what the Buddha said about compassion. And in a moment I will share some of what Jesus had to say on the topic. We have not compared notes, but I’m fairly certain that we will end in a very similar place. So welcome Ken. We are all yours.
Because Jesus taught through stories, as did the Buddha, I want to tell you a few stories. They are stories that you know, but I want to invite you to listen to them again with fresh ears and attention especially to what they say about compassion.
The night before Jesus was taken by the government and put to death, he gathered in a final meal with his disciples. It was a Passover feast that they enjoyed together. In the middle of the meal Jesus stood up, and “removed his outer garments.” It’s kind of odd to hear, but the depiction that I saw of this was basically him stripping down to a loin cloth, in the middle of a dinner party.
Then he took a wash basin and water and began to wash the feet of each of his disciples.
After he finished he asked them, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.
Time and time again in his ministry Jesus hung out with those who were disenfranchised. We hear stories of him eating meals with tax collectors and associating with women. But this is probably the most striking example of Jesus humbling himself.
He knew that power structures got in the way of human understanding. He knew that roles and societal boundaries had to be broken down for people to really understand one another. So he took it upon himself to humble himself to those who respected him most. In the middle of dinner he knelt down and washed their dirty tired feet.
This isn’t about each one of us becoming lowly and meager in our lives. But it is about us recognizing when we have power over other people. To engage with others in a compassionate way requires that we actively dismantle that power as much as possible, so that we can see eye to eye. Displacing our own power over other people, whenever and however we have it, is a quintessential piece of compassion that we hear in this story.
The second story I want to talk about is almost a complete opposite of the one we just heard. But it is just as important for us to hear, because showing compassion isn’t the same in every situation. In fact compassion depends almost completely on the context. We are called to show compassion for those we are with, in the present moment.
The story tells us, “Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an Alabaster vial of very costly perfume. She poured it upon His head, as He reclined at the table, but the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said why this waste? For this might have sold for a high price, and the money given to the poor. But Jesus, aware of this said to them, ‘Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. For the poor, you have with you always. But you do not always have Me.’
This peculiar little story packs in a many different messages of compassion. The first is that we never know how long we will have the opportunity to offer the gifts that we have. Life is short and uncertain. It’s not quite so uncertain now as it was in the days of Jesus, but still, we never know how long we have with our loved ones. This day, this moment might just be the last opportunity we have to share our compassion with the person before us. So why hold that gift for another day?
And the story brings up another important piece of compassion, which is how we respond to those around us. Our world is often not a very compassionate place. In fact we have a great tendency to dismiss compassionate acts as unwise, or to find some way to explain them away with self-centered motives. We can be incredibly cynical about the motivations of others. This little story is a challenge to that judgment. It’s an invitation to celebrate good deeds whenever and wherever they occur, even if the method is not what we might have chosen. When you see the compassion of others, celebrate it for the rare gift that it is.
The final lesson that this story brings up is about who needs compassion. It’s not only the destitute who are in need of compassion. Each and every living person faces fears and challenges in life. We all need compassion. Often when I travel in wider circle people make jokes about how easy it must be doing ministry in paradise. I quickly remind them, and I want to remind you that no matter how complete a person’s life may appear, whether leader or follower, rich or poor, surrounded by friends or a lone ranger, they experience pain and loss, and they are each deserving of compassion.
The final story I want to tell is both the most familiar, and the most important window into compassion. It’s the story of the woman who was caught in adultery. The scribes and Pharisees (who we are not supposed to like) brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They said according to Moses’ law we should stone this woman. But what do you think we should do.
Jesus tried to ignore the question, but they persisted. Finally he said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” It took a while, but eventually all of the men gathered, realizing that none of them were perfect dispersed. And Jesus said to the woman, since none of these men can stand to accuse you, neither will I. Go and sin no more.
Now this story isn’t about fault and innocence. For the woman was caught in adultery. There is no question that she did in fact sin. I also don’t think that the crux of the story is about appropriate punishment of others. In our exploration of compassion, I think this story is an invitation for us to see others, whoever they are, by first remembering our own experiences of pain and brokenness. Because when we remember our own challenges, our own shortcomings and pains, then we can engage compassionately with the other.
The crux of compassion, is in the very Latin root of the word. Com-passion means suffering with. Without linking our own painful experiences to theirs, compassion cannot exist. Mind you, it doesn’t have to be the same pain. Jesus didn’t say, let he who has not committed adultery cast the fist stone. This story might have ended very differently if that were the invitation. But he said, let he who is without sin.
Each and every one of us has experienced pain and loss, we have made mistakes. It behooves us to remember those experiences when we judge others. Not so that we can dismiss moral responsibility. But so that in the end, rather than offering the world a cold stone, we can offer a blessing, to go out and sin no mare.