Sunday, June 19, 2022
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy, TX 77493
June 19, 2022
As you can probably imagine, Wendy and I talk about what we are going to preach on a given Sunday. We share what has been said by our different bible studies and then usually come up with fairly different sermons. Wednesday night Wendy mentioned that she had looked back at the sermon she preached in 2016 which was the last time she preached on these passages. She said, “I can’t believe it. Nothing has changed. Six years ago I was preaching about a mass shooting in Santa Monica. The sermon I had then is just as relevant now as it was then.” So out of curiously I looked back into my files and had almost the same sermon with one other similarity.
I had written about the Santa Monica shooting but I also related how violence against LGBT people in Norfolk and Virginia Beach was effecting the Pride Week celebrations. The synagogue where the inter-faith service was held was guarded by police in full riot gear who were stationed at the front door. So here we are six years later, mass shootings (defined as an event with more than 4 people shot) an almost daily occurrence with three major incidents in the last month. There was also in the news earlier this week, the story of the arrest of 30 men, members of a group labeled as a hate group, dressed in riot gear packed in a U-Haul truck headed to disrupt a Pride Month parade. I thought then as I do now of the hymn “The church is one foundation.” Verse 3 says, “yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, ‘How long’ and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
How long Lord, how long. I said then that I was tired, weary of seeing flags at half-mast in mourning. Tired of the hatred and tribalism that has divided our society, our churches, our country. I am still tired and I still ask “how long?” Yet in that hymn is hope. There is also hope in our gospel passage today.
How ironic that we find the healing of the Gerasene demonic in Luke as our reading this week. I wonder how many times he, in his few lucid moments, and his family and friends asked that question of God. How long God? How long must he be tormented by the many demons that said they were legion that possessed this man and seem to possess our world? The word he used literally meant an army of 4000-6000 men. We too cry out how long will this violence continue. How long must the demons of hatred and violence plague our world? Why can’t we banish this legion of hate to the swine on the hillside and drive them into the sea?
When I first started to write this sermon I had intended to spend time talking about evil and demons. Now that is a topic sure to make the average Episcopalian very very nervous. Most of us would prefer to explain the man’s actions as those of someone who is violently mentally ill. Yet what about those pigs who are the recipients of the demons and rush head long over the cliff?
I think however that we have seen enough evil, enough demons in the past few weeks to believe they exist therefore, I feel called to head in another direction. That direction is to examine what are we as Christians, called to do in response to the hatred that we see. For hatred is the problem, violence is only the symptom.
We have a deficit problem in our world today. Now when I mention deficit most people think money. This is a different type of deficit.
I believe there is a much greater deficit that threatens our country than one with dollar signs attached. I believe the deficit that threatens us, all of us, is a compassion deficit. We as a country and a world have for the most part forgotten how to be compassionate to the other. The level of conflict has grown to a point where the other is now demonized and the only response once conflict has escalated to this point is the desire to destroy the other. That is about as far from the teaching and example of Christ as we can get. However, from the standpoint of conflict resolution theory this is the point we have reached, and it frightens me. For conflict resolution theory teaches that once this level of conflict has been reached it is almost impossible to back down, but we know that nothing is impossible for God.
Compassion means “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”1 When Jesus is met by the demoniac he treats him with compassion. Compassion is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Compassion and empathy are characteristics of Jesus that we see especially in Luke. These are different than pity or sympathy. Pity or sympathy is something we feel, but do not prompt further action. “Oh I’m sorry to hear that,” and then we move on with our life. Compassion and empathy say, I hear your pain, I share your pain, I want to help you with that pain.
Just as he did in the story of the hemorrhaging woman that follows this story. Jesus sees suffering and the Bible often says he is filled with compassion. He feeds the 5000 because he is filled with compassion Acting with compassion to the other is how Jesus responded to people and to conflict.
It was Martin Luther King who said, “Hate does not destroy hate, only love destroys hate.” Hate only leads to more hate. To that I would add compassion overcomes hate because compassion is based on love. This is because compassion forces us to see the other as a beloved child of God. That is where the real problem lies in seeing the other as a beloved child of God even when we disagree. Once you open up to compassion it is impossible to hate the other in fact they cease to be other and that is the point.
I talked last week about the unitive consciousness, the realization that we are all interconnected, that we are all one. Compassion helps us make that connection. Compassion will bridge the gap and reopen conversation because it changes both people. That change then allows us to connect with each other in a new way.
Now I do see some signs of hope. The reaction to the refugees from Ukraine is one area that for me is a bright spot in a horrible war. The question this prompts however is why compassion and care for these while we ignore others. You can reflect on that on your own. But like the hymn that I quoted earlier I want to end with a message of hope.
I want to tell you a story about how God can open a person’s heart to feel compassion for the other, for a person they thought was a terrible person. A classmate of mine told me this story from her life before seminary. It was about her own come to Jesus moment. This is shared with permission although I will not use her real name.
Linda was from a very conservative part of the country and a member of a very conservative Episcopal parish. She was working in a hospital as a lay chaplain during the AIDS crisis. She didn’t like visiting the AIDS patients. She thought that the way they lived was sinful and that they probably were going to hell for their actions. One afternoon she was called to see a young man who was dying from AIDS. The family had been called to say goodbye. As they left his sister turned back and came over to the bed and Linda was standing by the door. With tears in her eyes the sister said, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you have to die and I’m so sorry I will never see you again, because when you die I know you are going to hell.” Then she turned and walked out the door.
Stunned by what she had seen my friend broke down in tears and did something she had never done before. She took off the mask, the gown and the gloves she was wearing. They wore these to protect the patient more than the staff. She went over to the man and took his hand and wiped away the tears in his eyes with the first real human touch he had experienced in months. Then she said, “Don’t listen to her. God loves you.” She knew in that moment that this is what Jesus would have done. So, filled with compassion, she reached out to one that she considered other and saw him for who he was, a beloved child of God in need of the assurance that he was in fact a beloved child of God. She stayed with him that night until he passed. Her life was changed forever and she became an advocate for AIDS patients and the LGBT community in a city that totally rejected them 30 some years ago.
You see compassion heals people and relationships. Everyone is entitled to be treated with compassion. Approaching a person with compassion changes the dynamics and will pull the conflict back to a manageable level. Is this hard work? Absolutely! Is this how love unites? Yes absolutely. Will treating people with compassion change you? Yes absolutely. Is this what Jesus would ask us to do. Yes absolutely.