“Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
Words that have an ominous resonance for us these days in this country. Will our “most favored nation” status be taken from us and given to another? Has this country, which has been dominated by Christians for hundreds of years, produced the fruits of the kingdom? Well, yes. And no.
I was asked to preach today to reflect on our recent mission in Baton Rouge. I returned a couple weeks ago; Br. Charles and Br. Timothy returned this past week. It was, of course, time well spent. We were able to be helpful as a pastoral presence and in many more “practical” ways besides. Our work was primarily with the clergy and staff of the Diocese of Louisiana (all displaced by the hurricane)—but also with other relief workers. And also, in a more limited way, with “refugees”, some of the great masses of the poor being sheltered in the Baton Rouge convention center. We thank you for your very generous support of this mission. So, this sermon might be entitled “Reflections after a Hurricane”.
My most vivid memory is of walking among those thousands of cots: row after row after row of cots. 5000 people in that River Center shelter. Perhaps some were comforted by my presence, or cheered by our little chats. But I couldn’t help thinking that what these people need most right now is case workers and resources—not pious platitudes. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything like “it’s going to be OK.” For many, it’s not. I had come face to face with the great elephant in our national living room: the poor. And I was stupefied. Stupefied by the sheer magnitude of the problem and a sense of hopelessness.
A lot of the political commentary these last few weeks has spoken to this. The consensus seems to be that although the shame of our poverty was exposed as never before, we lack the political will to actually do something about it. Collectively, we don’t have the will—yet—to do much about it. The optimistic among us hope that this will change.
The answer is fairly obvious: we need to be more compassionate. So: let’s all be more compassionate! It’s a no-brainer, but, at the same time, irritating. Of course, we’d like to be more compassionate. We just aren’t quite sure how. How do we become more compassionate? I struggle with this. Some of you may also. It’s the “how” that’s the catch.
So, I’m going to try to be practical. But I’m going to begin with, of all things, a religious image, one familiar to many of you: the image of Jesus on the cross, with his mother standing at one side, the beloved disciple on the other. You’ve seen some version of this. The mother and friend standing there. And looking. Looking. Seeing. Seeing the man on the cross. Taking it in. Taking in the suffering of the one on the cross.
Looking. Seeing. Taking it in. That’s the point of conversion. Because most of us don’t want to look or see or take it in. We have a filter that screens out the suffering of others.
Which isn’t all bad. Don’t start beating yourself up over this. The universe is a very complex place and we can’t take it all in—we need filters to block out a lot of what’s out there. There’s survival value in filtering things out. If I’m in a terrible accident, I don’t want the Emergency Room team to dissolve in tears of compassion, overwhelmed by feeling my pain. I want them to screen out my suffering and get to work putting me back together again.
Br. Charles worked at the morgue in St. Gabriel, LA as a chaplain. Very, difficult work. On my flight home I sat next to a woman from Iowa who was in forensic dentistry. She had just spent two weeks at that morgue—seeing things that no human eyes should have to see. I asked her how she did it. She said she had a gift: she could see these things and not take it in. She was a person of deep spirituality and took up this work out of compassion. But she was able, somehow, to not take in the depth of suffering her work revealed to her. Sometimes we need our filters.
Some of you may have read Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees”. There was a character in the story who had a very unusual pathology: she had no filters. She suffered with everyone who suffered. Watching the news on TV could send her into the absolute depths of anguish for the suffering of others. She couldn’t bear it and finally ended up taking her own life.
Our filtering screens are not all bad. But there, I think, is the point of conversion. At the filtering screen of our mind. To be more compassionate (if that is what we desire), we need to look more, see more, take more in. Like at the cross. Instead of flipping quickly past that magazine article on famine in Africa, we need to sit there and soak it up. Instead of rushing past that homeless person we’ve just given a buck to, we need to pause and say “hello”—look more, see more, take more in. Instead of averting our gaze when we see that scruffy looking man going through the garbage to find food, we need to look, see, take it in.
I want to recognize some of our guests this weekend: they’ve come on a very unusual kind of retreat. They’re working with the homeless in Boston through Ecclesia Ministries. You’ve come to stand here, look, see, take it in. And do. We thank you. We are honored by your presence.
The gateway to deeper compassion (if that is what we desire) is our senses: our eyes, our ears, even our noses. Standing still at the foot of the cross—looking, seeing, smelling, taking it in. Then, who knows? We may actually do something. If we all did this, our political will might actually change. The government we elect might actually begin to reflect our collective compassion.
Will we lose our “most favored nation” status? Could be! But why should we sit by so patiently while this happens? The fruits of the Kingdom may not be embodied in their fullness for a thousand years; maybe 10,000 years.
On the other hand, why not today? Why should we be so patient?
What right do we have to be so patient?
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