Easter Leftovers: Compassion
Sunday, April 17, 2016
Some of you will recognize the name Dr. Timothy Johnson. For many years Johnson, who is a graduate of Harvard, was the medical correspondent for ABC. He was a frequent contributor to 20/20, ABC Nightly News and the old ABC late evening news program called Nightline.
What you may not know is that Johnson is also an ordained minister and before a career in medicine went to seminary. Part of his studies for ministry took place at the University of Chicago Divinity School. It was a year that was both rewarding and challenging for him. It was challenging from the perspective that he felt like that he was regularly bumping up against issues and subjects in spirituality that called into question the faith of his childhood. As a result, the questions and uneasiness that were developing inside of him were taxing on both a physical and spiritual level.
In the midst of his struggles, he met a man by the name of Granger Westberg who taught in both the Medical School and the Divinity School at the University of Chicago at the time. Beyond teaching, Dr. Westberg also functioned as a chaplain and he became a good friend to Johnson over the course of that challenging year.
In writing about his old friend, Johnson remembered Dr. Westberg as someone with a “gentle presence, a kind smile and a soothing voice”. Westberg listened to Johnson, helped him to see his questions and concerns as normal and shepherded him through that tough year. It was the beginning of a friendship and a respect that would last for the rest of their lives. (Good Grief, Granger E. Westberg with forward by Timothy Johnson, Fortress Press, 2011, pages 7-8.)
In essence what won Johnson over to Westberg’s friendship was the fact that in him, he discovered someone who was compassionate. Webster defines compassion as our ability to “show sympathy or concern for others” and Webster also says that the synonyms of compassion are our being “empathetic, understanding, caring, sensitive, warm and loving”.
Simply stated this morning, what I want us to see is that one of the enduring qualities of Jesus that is visible in the gospels and reemphasized with a strong focus in the resurrection stories is that Jesus was and is compassionate towards you and I as his followers. More than almost anything else, the Easter story wants us to understand that the God revealed to us in Christ is a God of compassion.
In 2016, as a church and as people of faith, I sometimes fear that we are loosing sight of this both for ourselves and for others. If I am confessional, I must admit that my preaching sometimes borders on the “thou shalt nots of faith” and on reminding us week after week of the high bar of expectation that God sets in front to us. I would say though that like many of you, I have been conditioned in this direction by the version of God that was offered to me in the church that I grew up in which was the First Baptist Church of a small southern town very similar to this one. God was a God to obey, there were high expectations of me as a follower, God was disappointed when I sinned, sin was serious business and it carried with it strong consequences.
This is what I was taught, and, I still hardily and fully believe all of these things. But, God is also a God of compassion who empathizes with our mistakes, understands our struggles and continuously loves us in spite of ourselves and this is something that shines though in the post-Easter visits of Jesus to his followers.
Take our text for today as an example. Notice how the disciples are characterized. According to Luke, they were afraid. Why? Well for a lot of reasons. First, they didn’t know what to make of Jesus. Was he a ghost? Had he really overcome death? Was he a real person like them? In the midst of these real life and good questions, we might expect a frustrated, impatient Jesus who wonders why after the fiftieth explanation they still don’t get it. But, that is not what we get. Instead, Jesus remains patient, Jesus seems to understand. In fact, he even invites them to touch his hands and to see his body as a real life show and tell of his aliveness.
Second, I think they were also fearful because they knew how they had treated him in the last days of his life. Sure, Judas is the one who had denied him, but, none of them had been sterling examples of courage and faithfulness. Most had drifted into the shadows while wondering if they were next. In turn, I have no doubt that they were waiting for Jesus to give them the tongue lashing that they felt they deserved. But, in truth, in never comes. Instead, Jesus wanted them to know that he loves them, still believes in them and still trusts his ministry to them in spite of themselves.
And, if Luke isn’t good enough for you, read John sometime which is the other gospel among the four that gives us an extended glimpse of Jesus during his forty days on earth after Easter Sunday. John adds the story of Thomas who would not believe unless he saw for himself and then this gospel tells us that Jesus gladly gave Thomas the chance to do just that. Further, John is the one who invites us to be spectators at Jesus reunion with Peter who was the other disciple who came the closest to Judas’ betrayal by denying that he even knew Jesus three times. While on the beach at breakfast, Jesus reminds John that he loves him, still wants to use him and that he still sees John as a leader.
What do all of these stories have in common? It is pretty obvious isn’t it? They are stories of a Jesus of compassion far more than they are of a Jesus of judgement.
I still remember one of the first funerals that I led as a minister in which I offered the final words and reflections in this life about someone that I didn’t know. At the time, I often asked to use the recently deceased’s Bible at their funeral and when I went to pick it up, it was obvious to me that the family had gone out and bought a bible rather than admit that their family member did not own one. I remember calling the man who had been my minister during all of the years of my childhood, a wonderful minister named Darryl Wood. “Dr. D,” I said, “I am to do a funeral tomorrow for a man that I really never met and whom I am not sure was a believer”. “I can find no record that he went to church and his family has not said anything to me about his spiritual life. Maybe he was a believer, but I don’t know,” I continued. “What should I do?”
I still remember his reply. “If you don’t know then border on grace and compassion,” he wisely replied. “Because, I can tell you this, if you have to decide between God as God of judgement and God as a God of grace and compassion in the scriptures, it really isn’t that close. Don’t say he is in heaven if you don’t know he was a believer. Don’t lie. But, land on the side of grace.”
I have found that one conversation to be as helpful for my life as for anyone. I need God to err on the side of grace and compassion with me. I need to know that at the end of the day that in spite of myself and my failures and sin that God still loves me, believes in me and wants to use me. And, I believe that seeing the world on this side of the Resurrection and with Easter Eyes says that this is true as one of the key cornerstones of faith and as one of the key images of God. And, I believe that you need that just as much as I do.
At the same time, others out there need this Easter word too. The Easter Eyes that see Jesus’ basic trait as being compassionate is not only what we all need, it is what the world needs. Yes, the world needs us to hold up a high ethical bar. Yes, the world needs us as the church to courageously stand for what is right and for what is wrong. But, the world needs to know that Jesus loves them, understand where they are in this life, that Jesus is there to love us in spite of ourselves and that he still has plans for our lives even after we mess up in a royal way. We need to help others to see Jesus through Easter Eyes by being compassionate in our own dealings with them more than telling them what they have done wrong.
This past week, I have been reading a moving book called Stations of the Heart. It is the story of a professor at Duke whose 33 year old son died of cancer. The book is the memoir of their relationship with each other and of how he dealt with his son’s passing at such an early age.
One of the most moving moments in the book for me is his recounting of a night when his doorbell rang and he went to open the front entrance to find two of his students. In the story, Richard Lischer, the Duke Professor and author, is honest in admitting that they, as his students, were both nervous. After all, they had never shown up unannounced at their professors home.
As he studied their nervous faces, he looked from their faces to their hands. The two young men were standing there carrying a lot of food. One had a big ham covered in toothpicks holding pineapples and cherries. The other young man, wearing oven mitts, held a hot casserole. They had brought rolls, tea, etc. They knew their professor’s son was dying and they didn’t know anything else to do but to bring him dinner. A dinner that these two male students had made themselves after discussing the matter with their mom’s over the phone. To say it moved this Duke intellectual is a gross understatement. Why? Because with hands, feet and food they tried to communicate that they cared, that they loved him as their teacher and that they were concerned for his well-being and that they were willing to risk showing how they felt about him. (Richard Lischer, Stations of the Heart, Vintage, 2013, pg. 118)
The Christian writer Madeleine L’Engle tells of a night when her daughter got very scared of the dark while in her own bed. L’Engle says that her daughter cried out and came running in her direction. Trying to comfort her, she said, “don’t be afraid dear, God will be with you!” To which her daughter replied, “I know that Mommy, but I want someone with skin on.” (As quoted by George Mason in his sermon “Where Are You Taking Me Jesus?”, Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas, May 7, 2000)
In Christ, God became flesh to tells us that he loves us fully, completely, always. As believers, “made of flesh and bone” with “skin on”, God invites us with compassion to make sure that the world knows the same. Amen.