Thursday, March 22, 2012

Sermon for March 18, 2012

Qualities of Spiritual Seekers: Mitzvah
Hillel said: The more flesh, the more worms; the more possessions, the more worry; the more servants, the more thievery. The more Torah, the more life; the more study, the more wisdom; the more charity, the more peace. Pirke Avot 2:8

Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.” Matthew 9:35-38

Let’s do a little compassion exercise together. If you prefer not to participate then that’s fine. Participate as fully as you feel you are able to. I invite you to become aware of yourself: Be aware of your own body and how you feel at this moment, aware of the people that sit near you, aware of this building, its particular smells and sounds, and if it helps you to become more aware I invite you to close your eyes.

I’m going to give to you a series of people and situations that I want you to feel in your body. I’ll invite you to say a phrase in the quietness of your own mind, after each of these situations:

Think about Afghanistan. I hear that Kabul is a place where it’s easy to lose empathy for the suffering of others. There’s just too much suffering, endless numbers of people in need of help. When you know that the next attack could mean the end of your own life, you focus on yourself and those dearest to you. The rest of the people become somebody else’s business. We’ve heard about the massacre of 16 civilians in Afghanistan this past week, 9 of whom were children. I invite you to say to yourself, “I know sadness and fear. People in Afghanistan also know deep sadness and fear.”

Imagine another situation: A 15-year-old girl whose name is Maria. She lives in Honduras where she works 12 hour days without any overtime pay. She is paid 50 cents an hour to make jeans, unprotected from exposure to dangerous chemicals. Say to yourself, “Just like me, Maria is trying to avoid suffering in her life.”

Think about a politician with whom you have very different views. Say, “Just like me, he or she is human and learning about life.”

The next situation is a friend, family member or a colleague with whom you find yourself in conflict. It could be a recent conflict or a past argument. With that person in mind say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking joy and meaning in life.”

Think about the person next to you, either left or right, front or back, and with your focus on that person say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking happiness in life.”

You can now open your eyes. I wonder for whom is it easier to feel compassion: those farther away from us or those closest to us? Even within our own church family, so many people are suffering. My heart breaks for so many of you. It seems that there’s not enough room in the world to hold all the pain we experience. Each of us holds the pain of the world in our bodies, just as Jesus held the suffering of the world in his body.

There is a word from the Jewish Tradition that I’d like to explore today -- a word that related to what I’m, talking about. The word is mitzvah. Mitzvah is a Hebrew word, usually defined as a commandment, a good deed or religious act. A mitzvah is a single act of goodness or religious observance. However, mitzvah is much more than that. Mitzvah means human capacity. Mitzvah is how you feel when your sick kid wakes up in the middle of the night and you have to get up the next morning to go to work. You take care of your child, no matter how tired you are. We all need mitzvah in our lives, or life becomes shallow. We want to be there for the people we love. Mitzvah is a crucial principal in the journey of the spiritual seeker. We hold the needs of the world in our bodies. Instead of offering pity or charity, we offer a mitzvah. We say, “I am present, I am fully here, how can I use my life and gifts to empower you?”

I remember when I began to learn about the difference between compassion as charity and compassion as empowerment. It was right before my 28th birthday. I worked in a small rural church. I’d been there for about a year when I met Jennifer, a 17-year old mom with a baby girl. When Jen was 17, she was romanced by a 30-year-old man who got her pregnant. They lived together, trying to raise their new daughter. Rumors around town said the boyfriend was abusive. Chris, my wife, invited Jen to a mother’s group to get her out of the house and meet some people in the community. That afternoon, when I came home from work, Jen was sitting at our kitchen table with Chris. Jen decided to leave her boyfriend who, according to her, was verbally and emotionally brutal. She was like a prisoner in her own house and she wanted out. Since she was still 17 and a minor, her decision posed some unique challenges. Jen quickly learned how to navigate “the system”: social services, WIC, welfare, and family court. We gave her grocery money to help her get by. Chris watched her baby for free. The church deacons bought Christmas gifts for Jen and her baby. Family Court eventually awarded her full custody. When she wasn’t living with a family member, she and her baby stayed at a meager motel room, funded by Social Services.

After a few months, Jen moved back in with her boyfriend. She would have rather lived with the abuse than have tolerated the alternative. She also got used to our charity, still expecting us to give gifts, watch the baby, and fund what we considered a reckless path. When we heard she moved back in with her boyfriend, I felt so naive. It felt like all of our compassion was for nothing. My compassion moved me to give charity, but was it a mitzvah? Was Jen ever empowered to be a better person, a better mother, a healthier member of our community? Did we do the right thing?

Pity or empowerment? I also learned the difference from Brett. One Sunday morning, right before the beginning of worship, a mom pulled me aside and told me that her stepson Brett had tried to kill himself again by jumping off a three story building. Two weeks later I visited Brett at a hospital in Buffalo, right after the last of his extensive reconstructive surgeries. Brett was a handsome, 22-year old whose eyes told the whole story. He was broken. His body was crushed. His emotions were tormented by depression and loneliness. His spiritual life was non-existent. As it turned out, Brett had not tried to kill himself. He was running away from a drug deal gone bad, and tried to leap off the roof to get away. In these situations, there is really nothing to say. I can’t lecture the guy on his bad decisions. He has family for that. No need to heap guilt or to be manipulative. I wanted him to know that there is a God who wants him to know a sense of belonging, total love and full acceptance. What do we do when we’re moved with compassion but we don’t know how to show it? What do we do when we get one chance to say the right thing, and we end up just sitting silently listening, trying to be a friend, trying to how some understanding? Could Brett be empowered to change his life? To be a better person? A healthier member of our community?

Jesus knew about mitzvah. He could hold the needs of the world in his body, and say, “Here I am. I am present, I am fully here. How can I use my life and gifts to empower you?” He had a way of seeing potential in people: Street women, tax collectors, lepers, and those marginalized by society. Jesus saw value in each of them. There is an important phrase in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus, “had compassion on them.” We hear it again and again. Jesus healed. He empowered. He offered life with new possibilities. Can I do that? Can I show compassion without condition or restraint? Even if it means being taken advantage of? Even if it means giving some of that which I value?

I’ve learned something important through these two situations. I had not gone on my own inner journey. I hadn’t worked out why I needed to help. I had not been honest about my own needs and motives before I offered to fix someone else’s mess. So the compassion I offered was more like pity. Whether it helps the other or not, offering pity makes me feel better, but it only addresses symptoms, not causes. Compassion is much more profound if we can offer a mitzvah out of a deep inner mindfulness. “Here I am. I am present, I am fully here. How can I use my life and gifts to empower you?”

Consider what your faces of compassion are. Compassion can be soft and nurturing, and at the same time it can be tough love. Compassion can be receptive and listening, or it can be active and practical, or anywhere on that spectrum. Compassion can be deeply patient, or recklessly impatient. Compassion can be sitting with someone, or to taking someone’s hand and leading. Compassion can be neat and clear. Compassion can be messy and clumsy. Above all else, compassion is about presence. There are so many expressions of compassion. How do you show it? Where do you find yourself skillful in empowering others?

Truth be told, this is really my stewardship sermon. As we take time to consider our financial giving to CCC, I hope our giving can be a mitzvah. I hope we can give some of what we hold on to out of compassion. Sometimes the biggest stumbling block for people is that the church, in its hour of prosperity, does so little to alleviate the suffering of the world. We are trying to change that here. I hope you know that as you give your time, talents, and treasure to this church, as you learn about your gifts and how to practice spiritual activism, you empower us to do great things. Yes, we pay staff, operate and upkeep our buildings, pay utilities, mow the grass and pay for air conditioning. We also educate our children in values like love, social justice, faith, and service. We feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We serve our community and extend our hospitality. We try to make the world a healthier place, a more loving place, a more equitable place. Your compassionate gifts empower CCC to give back to you – to empower you to be a better mother, a better father, a better partner, a better member of the community, a better friend, a better child of God, a better human. Our giving is a mitzvah. It helps us realize that in Christ there are no insiders and outsiders. We are one nature, one flesh one grief, one hope. We are here, with each other, using our lives and our gifts to empower one another.

I know, we worry about money. We think of all the things we can’t do. Ancient Rabbis taught that many of the things we spend much of our lives attempting to acquire come with a price tag. We hear it in our reading from Pirke Avot: the more possessions, the more worry. We often assume that money, status and pleasure will provide us with happiness. These blessings will not last beyond the grave — and may very well take us there much sooner.

The more compassion, the more peace. Peace comes when we are fully engaged in our community and world. Peace comes when we share what we have with others who are in need. Peace comes when we know who we are – one of God’s children who knows sadness and fear; one of God’s children who wants to avoid suffering and find happiness; one of God’s children who is learning about life and trying to find joy and meaning. We do not have to worry about compassion. It exists in abundance. Wake up to it. Reach out and share it. Live it. Become it. Hold it in your body. When we can, we will be part of the transformation of the world through service, justice and compassion.

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