Taking the Long View

Choosing Compassion and Hope

During my senior year of college I ran across a passage from Mark Twain from his autobiography about how he always preached in his humor, and that because of this humor would live forever, that is to say, about thirty years.  He was comparing himself to other humorists who had gone before whom the world had forgotten because they didn’t do this.  And then he concluded: “I am saying these vain things in this frank way because I am dead person speaking from the grave.  Even I would be too modest to say them in life.  I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead— and not then until we have been dead years and years.  People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier.”  It was that last paragraph that stunned me.  About people ought-ing to start dead.  About how we aren’t our entire and honest selves in this life, in the present time.

Photo Credit: David Gabriel Fischer Flickr via Compfight cc

And so on this Sunday I stand before you not as the me in the here and now, but the me in the future.  Nine years from now, to be exact, on February 8, 2026.  When these same lessons will be read once more in these walls, and I will climb the steps to this pulpit to proclaim the good news to the congregation assembled on that day. 

Let us pray: Take my lips O Lord and speak through them.  Take our minds and think with them.  Take our hearts and set them on fire, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

One of the things I do when I’m preparing to preach on any given Sunday is to read the sermons I gave before on these same lessons.  You likely know that our lessons each week follow a three year cycle, so the ones we heard this morning, we read three years ago and six years ago and so on.  So I pull out those old sermons to see what I focused on before, to see which text I based my sermon on and what word I proclaimed.

Nine years ago a lot was going on in our world.  It was a Super Bowl Sunday, the one where the Pats came back against the Falcons in unbelievable fashion.  But that was also the week when then President Trump signed an executive order barring immigrants from Syria and revoking visas on people from seven Muslim majority nations. Protests had been taking place around our country, legal battles taking place, rhetoric building all around and we were very much divided.  I saw family, friends and parishioners try to negotiate relationships with others in their lives who had voted differently from them, trying to figure out how those relationships could move forward without fracturing. 

As a priest it was a difficult time.  I know then—as now—I had parishioners from across the political spectrum sitting in the pews.  I had my own thoughts, of course, but I am a priest and pastor to all people as I’m reminded in my ordination vows—rich and poor, young and old, Republican and Democrat—and so the message I preached had to be good news to everyone while also remaining true to the gospel of Jesus.  Not an easy task, friends!  And I remember thinking what hard texts these were to hear at that particular time, especially that one from Isaiah.  “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  “Are you kidding me?” I asked God.  “These are the words you want me to proclaim?  The Trump supporters will think I’m ganging up on them; his detractors will think I’m not going far enough.”  But I tried to remember it wasn’t about me and to refocus it from a sense of judgment to one of encouragement.  We had been doing a sermon series on the marks of discipleship.  The words then seem apt now, so some of what follows may sound familiar if you were here nine years ago.

“I believe these texts we heard this morning point us toward compassion, and that, friends, is a mark of discipleship.  God doesn’t differentiate us from others like we tend to do so easily.  God doesn’t define us based on our gender or age or ethnicity or even on the person we voted for.  God loves us, period.  And God asks us to do the same.  To show compassion to those who are hurting.  To reach out to those who see the world differently.  To share a meal with someone who is hungry.  To give shelter to those who need it.  To work against systemic injustice that keeps some on the margins, not allowing them a place at the table.  Compassion should define the life of a disciple.  ‘Be salt,’ Jesus tells his disciples.  ‘Be light.’  And we need to be those things in our community and in our world in order to bring about hope, because we live in a time that so desperately needs it.”

I had also just read a book by Thich Nhat Hahn in preparation for my first sabbatical; the book is titled No Mud, No Lotus.  Hahn is a Zen Buddhist and his work had been recommended as I explored wilderness spirituality.  He tells about his experience in Vietnam during the war, how he would be asked as a religious leader if he thought the war would end soon.  His reply made it into my sermon: He didn’t know how to answer, so he simply said, “‘Everything is impermanent, even war.  It will end some day.’ Knowing that,” he wrote, “we could continue to work for peace.” He explains, “When you’re overwhelmed by despair, all you can see is suffering everywhere you look. You feel as if the worst thing is happening to you.  But we must remember that suffering is a kind of mud that we need in order to generate joy and happiness.  Without suffering, there’s no happiness.  So we shouldn’t discriminate against the mud.  We have to learn how to embrace and cradle our own suffering and the suffering of the world, with a lot of tenderness.” 

I then declared, “Without darkness there could be no light, without despair there could not be hope, without death there could be no resurrection.  Be people of light, people of hope, people of the resurrection.  Do so with tenderness.  Act with compassion.”

It wasn’t easy, of course, in the days after that.  The fractures in our nation during that time continued for some time.  But I saw this parish—I saw you—begin reaching out with compassion and hope in the midst of the dark divisions.  You chose to listen to those who thought differently from you simply to learn and not to convince.  You made efforts to come together to be light and salt in our community and world, recognizing that God uses us to embody God’s love and compassion.  You worked hard to do the work that Isaiah described, recognizing that it was work all of us could do regardless of our political affiliation.  You chose from that moment to fully live into our baptismal covenant and respect the dignity of every human being in a new way, including addressing the needs of those in our country who had felt left behind in rural areas, and welcoming those who were newer—work not easily divided by partisan politics but inline with Isaiah and God’s desires. God wanted us to choose hope and love and compassion, and you did.

It’s hard at times when you’re in the midst of confusion and controversy to take the long view, but that’s exactly what you did.  You saw beyond the chaos and division—the mud, if you will—and saw a flower.  You saw hope.  I ended my sermon that day with words attributed to the late Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador who was martyred in 1980 for standing against injustice.  I do so again today.

  “It helps now and then,” he said “to step back and take the long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

“This is what we are about: We plant seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capability.

“We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

“We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.”

Nine years ago we planted seeds of compassion and hope, trusting that they held future promise.  And today we see the difference those choices made.  Let’s keep doing so.  Let’s keep choosing compassion.  Let’s keep working for peace and being light and salt in our world, because it still needs those things.  It still needs the love of God.  And we, friends, we are workers and ministers and prophets for the Almighty One.  Let us not lose heart, but persevere just as we did in years gone by, because only when we do so, only when we shine our lights in the darkness, will the compassion of Christ be shown.  May it be so. Amen.