Take It To Heart: Empathy
Sunday, January 8, 2017
I suspect that many of you will at least recognize the name Father Damien. As a refresher, Father Damien was a Catholic priest who worked among the lepers of the Hawaiian Islands back in the late 1800s. It was a time when there was no known cure for Leprosy. With the disease both deadly and highly contagious, lepers at that time just as in Biblical days, often lived away from other people. In the Hawaiian Islands, those with leprosy lived on the island of Molokai and that is where Father Damien went to care for and live among them in 1873.
Father Damien continued this work for the next 11 years and then one day, while preparing hot water for his bath he came to an alarming conclusion. The scalding hot water was making his feet incredibly red but it did not agitate him or cause any pain. The reason was he no longer had any feeling in his feet, a sure sign that he had contracted leprosy himself.
In essence, it was at this point that Father Damien’s ministry among the lepers of Molokai moved to a completely different level. For 11 years, he had ministered to them as people with leprosy. Now, and continuing for the next five years, he would ministry to, care for and love the lepers of Molokai as one of them, a fellow leper, before dying of the disease himself at only 49 years of age. (“Father Damien”, www.wikipedia.com)
When we celebrate the coming of Jesus to earth at Christmas and the world’s ultimate recognition that Jesus was indeed God’s son it is easy for us to quickly race from Christmas Day to Easter Sunday. We do this by making the connection that Jesus came as the child in Bethlehem simply to be the Christ of Calvary and to provide us with salvation through the act of his death. After all, isn’t that the point we are making when on Christmas Eve itself, we take communion as a way of giving thanks not only for Jesus’ life but also for his death? In doing so we are saying that his birth was ultimately connected to his death.
Without question, this is an important and a clear connection for us to make and at the very center of Jesus’ life and story. But to quickly jump for Christmas to Easter is also to risk missing some of the other basic elements of God’s coming to earth as a human being.
One of those critical and easily missed elements is the fact that in the incarnation, which is to say in God’s coming to earth as a human, we are affirming that God experienced what it was like to be us. God moved from being the creator of humanity to being one of those among the created. Just as when Father Damien became a leper himself, God, for those 33 years, experienced life just as do you and I completely and fully. Over those 33 years, God lived like us.
One of the most beautiful places where scripture speaks to this profound and almost mind boggling idea is in our verse for today from John 1:14 when the gospel writer says this, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The word became flesh and dwelled among us, or, literally from the original Greek language, the word became flesh and “pitched his tent” in our midst which is to say that God, in the form of his son Jesus, came to earth and bought a house in our neighborhood.
God came to dwell with us. God came to empathize with us which means that God came to see and to experience life from our perspective so that God might be able to fully and clearly understand life as do we that God might love us and care for us with full and complete knowledge of what it is like to be us.
Again, this is what it means to be empathetic. It means to be able to identify as fully with someone else as we can because we have taken every measure possible to see and experience life as do they. This in essence is what God did for us in Jesus.
But, so what? Why does this theological Rubik’s cube matter so much in real life in January of 2017? I think it matters tremendously because of what it reminds us of both about how God relates to us and because of what it reminds us of how in terms of how we are to relate to each other.
First, it offers a profound reminder to us that when God speaks to us, guides us, calls us, disciplines us or challenges us that God does so having lived through every experience that we ourselves face. Knowing this should change dramatically how we experience God’s voice in our lives.
Over the holidays, I read a beautiful short story by the famous Western author of the last century Louis L’Amour. In a fictional tale called Meeting at Falmouth, L’Amour tells the story of a Frenchman on the run in England in the late 1700s. The man had made some bad decisions, was in trouble with the French government as was now on the run trying to save his life with his hope being to escape Europe altogether by making it all the way to America. While in route, he stops at an English tavern where he ironically meets an American and begins to share his story and his plans with the stranger from the very land to which he hopes to escape. As he talks about he hopes for a new life, the safety of a new country and the chance to escape his problems, the stranger from America, while compassionate, is not altogether enthusiastic or hopeful. Instead, he challenges the Frenchman to go back home, to face his opponents and to try his best to make things work out in his own country. As their conversation ends, the Frenchman looks at the American and asks his name to which the stranger replies, “My name is Benedict Arnold”. (As told in Beyond the Great Snow Mountains, Louis, L’Amour, Bantam Books, 2005)
The point of the story is obvious. Benedict Arnold the infamous traitor of the American Revolution spoke and advised out of a life in which he himself had lived through the very things this man was now experiencing. He spoke not as an outside observer but rather as someone who had gone through the same situation and who understood completely and intimately what this man was going through. This took his advice, counsel and wisdom to a completely different level and placed it in an altogether different light.
Think about it this way. Who does a great athlete listen to? The person who was once a star in the same sport, or the person in the stands who is 60 pounds overweight, who has never played the sport themselves and who would likely pass out on the first 100 yard dash?
I think sometimes, we forget that the wisdom of God at work and available in our lives comes to us in this very, same way. God is not speaking to us as an outside observer. God is not offering wisdom as one who has no idea of what we are going through or dealing with in life. Rather, God empathizes because God in Christ understands what it is like to be where we are and the human emotions that go with it. God absolutely understands the highs and lows of the human experience and when we approach God with this in mind and when we receive God’s direction in our lives with this in mind I think it places God’s direction in our lives in an altogether different light.
At the same time, I think the reminder of God’s quest to be one of us in order to identify with us is also a way for us to again recognize, as a new year begins, that our job is to do the same for others. In this life, as we interact with others, we are called to try to see, understand and appreciate what it is like to live with the same issues, concerns, pressures, joys or struggles that others experience.
The Listening Life is a new book by Adam McHugh. I was not familiar with Mr. McHugh or his writing until I read a recent article that is published each year regarding the best new books in American Christianity. The premise of McHugh’s book, which we will begin reading and discussing in a small group setting on Sunday evenings starting tonight at 6pm, is that we live in a world of a lot of noise, voices and opinions, yet, a world nonetheless where most of us are not very good listeners.
In the book, McHugh alludes to the fact that most of us can name several great orators of the modern age. We all know a few folks that we would consider to be tremendous communicators and speakers. But, how many of us can name one person, one person, whom we would say is a good listener. How many of us can name a single well known figure who works hard to talk less and listen more in order that they might understand those around them. How many of us see listening, not talking, as a sign of leadership, concern and a deeper spirituality.
Let me say it again, our God listens to us and thus speaks to us having heard and understood life from our perspective. As John says, “the word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. And we have seen his glory, the glory of One and Only son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
This morning, Adair, Tommy, Carl and I have conducted a little experiment unbeknownst to you. All of us, purposefully have worn someone else’s shoes all morning at church and they in turn have worn ours. As we have done so, we have thought, reflected and pondered what its like to be them, to live their life, to face their challenges and to see things from their perspective. As they have worn our shoes, I hope and suspect they have done the same.
This is our calling as we relate to others, for Jesus himself, came to earth to wear human sandals, live among us and in turn love us and care for us out of this very perspective. Amen.