Seeds of Empathy, Hearts of Compassion

Presentation3Mark 4:26-34 New Revised Standard Version

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”  He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”  With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

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SERMON OF 17 JUNE 2018

INTRODUCTION

When I hear the words of Mark speaking of the mustard seed, I find myself filled with the imagery of 2003, in East Timor.  My battalion was rebuilding a school, in the years following the attempted destruction of the Christian population.  The ground around it was absolutely barren.  Not even a weed, with a mixture of small rocks and dirt making up the landscape.  Every tree that once stood, had been pulled down and burned during the pillaging.

What struck me was how the surviving locals had now planted the yard with sticks.

Actually, tree limbs.

Holes of some depth had been dug into the rocky soil, with small limbs cut from local trees stuck into the earth.  Each stood four feet high, ready to take root and transform the area into a covering of cooling branches in the hot climate.

Then and now, the scene struck me as defiant hope, grounded in a faith that had not been annihilated.

More than this, the thought of how the kingdom of God, appearing small and lifeless… bursts forth, life from death.

Jesus spoke of the tiny mustard seed to make a point about appearances belying the potential that God has placed within, and that if we would see limitations, God sees clearly otherwise, for as God once said to Samuel, “…the Lord does not see as mortals see…”

It isn’t just a cute story about how such a small seed can give rise to an expansive  tree-like shrub up to 12 feet tall, or how it can give home to the birds of the air – which those who were Jewish would have picked up on as a symbol of the gathering in of all peoples.

Here is a word spoken to a group of Christians pressed against, seeking to be good citizens, while struggling with a sense of powerlessness in challenging the immoral elements of the Roman state.

WHY I BRING THIS UP

A few weeks ago I had notions of how I would approach today… Father’s Day.  A time we think of our earthly Dads and how some of us are truly blessed; maybe others not so.  Yet, I have found myself in a markedly different place, contemplating as to how can we truly honor our Father in Heaven if we allow or participate in the diminishment of His children on Earth?  Wondering how can Christians plant the hope for a new world in the face of the ongoing pain and evil evident in the present age?

FOR INSTANCE

In my reading early last week, I came across something by Rabbi Marc Aaron Kline, that continues to resonate with me.  Wrote the rabbi some years ago:

The purpose of scripture is to grow our empathy for each other, reminding us to love the stranger and know his heart.  Each of us has been the stranger at some point in our lives….  We have the power to turn one’s life into heaven or hell as we either embrace or cast off others from our society.  There are things over which we have no control: the forces of nature or the behaviors others impose upon us.  But there are catastrophes over which we have control because we have created them.

While he was addressing an altogether different matter, his words are prophetic to our present day, as we are indeed looking at a catastrophe in our present time, one not of nature, but one in part created by our very nation upon our southern border by our treatment of children and families seeking asylum.  It’s a disaster that has been coming over the past few years, but now has morphed into the deliberate ripping children from their parents arms, separating children from parents and now even from siblings, placing thousands of children as young as four months away from their families.  As the American Academy of Pediatrics has put it after inspecting facilities this past week,

These children are thrust into detention centers often without an advocate or an attorney and possibly even without the presence of any adult who can speak their language.  We want you to imagine for a moment what this might be like for a child: to flee the place you have called your home because it is not safe to stay and then embark on a dangerous journey to an unknown destination, only to be ripped apart from your sole sense of security with no understanding of what just happened to you or if you will ever see your family again.  And that the only thing you have done to deserve this, is to do what children do: stay close to the adults in their lives for security.

We dare not look away.

It is how we are celebrating Father’s Day as a nation this year.

On the very day when we take up an offering meant to shelter the least of these – here and abroad — in the case of disaster, we behold this disaster and our nation’s role in it.

It is hard for me to shake the language used.  Children being spoken of as a living “deterrence” in what reminds me of the “human shield” kind of language used in warfare by those we have roundly condemned as inhumane.  Yet here we are, with language that makes it self-evident their lives are not seen as having intrinsic God-given value, with spirits deserving of special protection.

Confronted as to the cruelties of recent policy, this past week Romans 13 has been cited as a justification for forcibly removing children from parents, the very same passage once used by slaveowners to rationalize slavery.  Well folks, Romans 13 does not say “to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” as was said.  It actually read “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.”  Let’s be clear, nothing is said about the laws themselves, for civil disobedience to immoral laws has a long Biblical tradition.  Moses would not have lived, had not Jewish midwives violated the Egyptian law that decried the death of male newborns.  Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego violated the law by refusing to worship King Nebuchadnezzar, and then stunned him by not being burned in that Babylonian furnace.  Daniel was thrown into the lion’s den for praying to God, and not the king as the law demanded.  When the Sanhedrin banned preaching in the name of Jesus, the apostles went right on preaching.

The biblical tradition of calling government to accountability and challenging it for failing to be fair, equitable, and merciful in its treatment of the weak is found throughout the prophetic tradition in the Bible.  It is OUR Biblical heritage, and was even enshrined within the words of our nation’s Declaration of Independence.

So when Paul, who had not yet been to Rome, framed his letter to a mixed audience which included Jews that had just been allowed to return to Rome after a five year absence under Nero, and possible eavesdropping Roman authorities – he echoed Jesus’ admonitions in the Sermon on the Mount “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” and “Bless those who persecute you.”  Paul was saying to the effect, be a good citizen as much as you are able, but remember that you won’t be able to offer sacrifices to the emperor and if that’s the law then you’re just going to break the law and go to jail.  Paul is not saying to leave unjust laws unchallenged – far from it.  Had the same official who cherrypicked a single verse and mangled it, read further, he would have come to these words of Romans 13:8-10:  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, ‘you shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder, you shall not steal; you shall not covet’, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (NRSV)  To this, yesterday our General Minister and President, Terri Hord Owens added:  “When we use the Bible to justify policies that violate God’s law of love, we are in violation of God’s commandment to love, and we are participating with unjust systems.  When we start with love, we will understand that when laws dehumanize and discriminate, we are faithful in opposing such laws, and we are faithful in using our voice, our vote to call and vote for LOVE.  When we start with love, there is no universe in which snatching the children of those seeking asylum in our country can be justified.”

This why Rabbi Kline puts his finger on it so well, writing:

We must free the Bible from the narrowness imposed on it.  Religion should be the force that spreads love and goodness through the world.  We owe it to our children and to their children: faith needs to build relationships, bring hearts into concert, open souls to each other’s love and fulfill the prophets’ visions of a world redeemed…  (continuing), Agape love is not partial as to how it applies; it demands that each of us love and embrace each other as a child of the very same Source of Creation.

So regardless of where we each stand on what immigration policies should be, and reasonable discussion on policy is surely a must, we dare not mistreat the stranger and must be united in our compassion toward those who have risked so much, even their lives, to cross our borders.  We dare not stay silent as children are literally being held hostage.  We cannot avoid the higher law of Biblical commandments that the people of God treat aliens in their midst with radical hospitality, opportunity, and charity, — of engaging our empathy to ask the deeper questions as to the plight these people have faced that led them to our land.

As one Methodist minister has written,

How bad must their existence be that they are trying to come to a country that is calling them vile names, accusing them of vile acts, building a wall to keep them out, uttering threats against them, and now claiming Scripture compels them to do so?!

(So) even if we refuse to let them join our society—we should honor parents who are trying to save their children and themselves from the suffering they are experiencing and will experience in the future.

He asks us to contemplate:

Is there not “a way to uphold the law and grant dignity at the same time?  Do immigrants not deserve our utmost respect for doing what we hope we would have the courage to do were we to find ourselves in their situation?  And do not children deserve our compassion as the law is being administered—common sense compassion that looks different than hollowed out WalMarts and tent cities on military bases as prisons/orphanages?

SO WHAT?

So what do we do with this, especially in an age when divisiveness tends to shout over contemplation and discussion, and things so quickly are seen through the binary lens of politics?

We dig deeper into the Word, remembering its purpose:  I say again,  “…scripture is to grow our empathy for each other.”

We reject those ways we would demonize and dehumanize immigrants and immigrant families, or each other for that matter.

We lift up the sanctity of families—all families.

We model a commitment to both uphold laws that are just, challenge laws that are unjust, and above all – ACT… ACT!   in compassion for those whose emotional and physical health and quality of life is under severe threat.

It is easy to think one’s voice will not be heard.

It is small.  It has not the numbers.  Those who control the levers of power may well seek to denigrate and diminish.

And yet there is the mustard seed:  Small, then mighty in a single season of its growth.  We must all seek to make this season of national challenge one of moral growth and compassion!

Amen!

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HOW CAN YOU HELP?

Elected officials.  We all have them.  Call.  Write.  Email.  Visit. 

Make your voice heard.  

Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless.
Not to speak is to speak.
Not to act is to act.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945).  German pastor and theologian, active in the German resistance against Hitler. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, and executed by the Nazis at FlossenbŸrg concentration camp, just before the end of the war.
Pastor’s Notes, used in preparation:  Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence at Southern Methodist University, By Dr. O. Wesley Allen, Jr., “Jeff Sessions and Father’s Day Sermons,” 14 June 2018.  Accessed at:  http://blog.smu.edu/pcpe/jeff-sessions-and-fathers-day-sermons/?ref=1153, on 15 June 2018.  Child’s World America, “Petition from Mental Health Professionals: Stop Border Separation of Children from Parents!,” April 2018.  Accessed at:  https://childsworldamerica.org/stop-border-separation/stop-border-separation-text-preview/, on 16 June 2018.  Langham Partnership, “A Commentary by John Stott, Romans 13: The Authority of the State,”  12 June 2016.  Accessed at https://us.langham.org/bible_studies/12-june-2016/ on 15 June 2018.  United Methodist Insight, “A Rabbi Interprets the Bible on Homosexuality,” unknown date.  Accessed at: https://um-insight.net/perspectives/reading-the-bible, on 11 June 2018.

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