Benediction Online

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Staying in the Heart of Compassion

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19 Matthew 4:1-11

What a terrible week for the people of Japan. The images of destruction and distress have been overwhelming at times…

Yet another natural disaster… it seems that we live in a time when tragedies occur with horrific frequency; disasters like this one or the Haiti earthquake which effect whole communities at once, and quieter personal disasters which suddenly cut individuals and families from their moorings.

We are much better off than the people of northeastern Japan. Yet we too have much to contend with. The proposed state budget is threatening to withdraw help from those who need it the most. I imagine we will be seeing far more calls for help from those who are struggling to keep a roof over their head or to pay the electricity or even to eat. It’s difficult to keep watching what’s happening in our world and in the lives of our friends without either becoming so used to disaster that we no longer remember the tremendous pain and suffering involved, or turning away because we can no longer stand the pain.

Today’s readings start with the story of Adam and Eve becoming conscious; becoming conscious of themselves as sexual beings and as separate from God – a separation which is symbolized by their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. This is the ancient people’s way of explaining why there is pain and suffering in the world – because the first humans made a big mistake - they gave in to the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit - and so were separated from the source of all goodness – the Creator God. As a result the whole of creation became warped and out of sync.

The second reading comes from Paul’s letter to the Romans which is probably the most complete statement of his theology. He argues that sin came into the world through one man’s disobedience and that the remedy came through one man, Jesus’s obedience.

We are reconciled with God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However this does not mean that we are magically free from suffering, whether as a result of natural disaster, our own mortality, or human agency. There is a strand of thinking in the Old Testament which suggests that if we love and obey God we will prosper. Many modern day Americans have appropriated this to mean that if we love and obey God we will have disaster-free and prosperous lives. I think the apostle Paul would be shocked at the very notion of prosperity theology – he personally lived through many disasters before he was ultimately martyred.

The gospel reading shows us Jesus struggling with the very human experience of temptation. He was tempted to use his divine powers to take short cuts – to stop his hunger, to become famous through a publicity stunt, and to be very powerful.

Perhaps the temptation to take short cuts is a basic human trait. Adam and Eve apparently wanted to take a short cut to consciousness and knowledge by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We want to take short cuts to make the pain go away, whether through pretending it isn’t real or by thinking about something else.

Jesus didn’t do either of those things. Jesus saw the pain he would experience as a result of being obedient, but he went ahead anyway. We are told that as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane he sweated blood. Jesus knew the pain of the world and he carried it in himself. Yet when the soldiers came he wouldn’t take the easy way out and fight them or simply remove himself from the situation. He walked into the pain of feeling separate from God; the deep pain of humanity.

Jesus lived with his eyes open and his heart full of compassion. As his Body we too are called to live with our eyes open and our hearts full of compassion. Yet the temptation is to close our eyes, to turn away, to say “I just can’t do anything about it”. There’s even a new term to describe how numbed we can come to others’ pain; “compassion fatigue”. Compassion fatigue is when we no longer respond to disaster with compassion and open hearts but just turn away. Compassion fatigue is when the problems seem so vast, so overwhelming that we say “I can’t do anything about it” and we change the channel and watch a sitcom instead.

Loren Eiseley told a story that goes something like this:

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that he was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what you are doing?"

The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."

"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one."

We can’t respond to every situation as fully as we would like. Yet compassion and our baptismal vows require that we do respond to the needs of the world in some concrete way. We can give money, sometimes we can give practical help, we can always pray. We can also work through the political process to bring changes which will benefit those who are most in need.

What is important is that we do not give in to the temptation to turn away. Even when we have nothing else left to give, we can still bear quiet, gentle and generous witness to another’s pain. We can still bring that pain to God in prayer, taking our place alongside the Christ who is interceding for the world.

Each time we look at pain with compassion, each time we donate money to Nets for Life, each time we write a letter to a Member of Congress, each time we pray for those in need, each time we pick up the phone to call a lonely person, we are helping one starfish back to the ocean.

So as we watch the unfolding drama of the tsunami, as we watch the struggle in Libya and the daily tragedies of our world, let us join Christ, the heart of compassion, in holding each person, each situation, gently in our hearts, bringing them before the throne of God and asking how we can help. As we come to the eucharist this morning, let us bring not only our own need but of the needs of the whole planet, especially of the people of Japan.


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