Deborah Sokolove: Learning Compassion

A Sermon for Seekers Church,
The First Sunday in Lent, February 13, 2005
by Deborah Sokolove 

Learning Compassion

Today is the first Sunday in Lent. On Wednesday, many of us marked one another’s foreheads with ashes with the reminder, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” It was a symbol of our mortality, our frailty, our humanness. We know, and continually try to forget, what our Ash Wednesday ritual reminds us: that we have been born and that one day, we will die.


Lent is a time of introspection, recalling the time when the early church fasted and prayed along with those who would become its newest members at the coming Easter Vigil. For those would-be Christians, formally known as the “catechumens,” – those who were receiving instruction or “catechesis” – the weeks leading up to their baptism were a period of intensive study and preparation. In order to help them, the entire church would spend this time reviewing the basics of the faith.


Therefore, the custom arose that on this first Sunday of this season of preparation, Christians would consider the story of the man and the woman in the garden, which is a story of yielding to temptation; and the story of Jesus in the wilderness, which is about resisting temptation. Another way of saying it is that these are stories about the possibility of sin, and its consequences.


Now “sin” is not a word we use a lot around here. We would rather talk about mistakes, bad choices or unfortunate circumstances. All of these sound somehow softer, more understandable, less judgmental. Sin is a heavy word, a word filled with images of long and joyless Sundays, of hellfire-and-damnation preachers, of puritanical images of “sinners in the hand of an angry God.” Some time in the last few thousand years, the mysterious story of the man and the woman and that un-named fruit that God said not to eat got tangled up in a doctrine called “original sin,” an idea that tried to convince us that even tiny babies would not go to heaven if they happened to die unbaptized.


When I was in the 11th grade, an exchange student from Sweden, named Birgitta, was in some of my classes. Birgitta was smart, funny and good-natured, and most of us liked her immensely. We were also curious about her life, as she was about ours. One rainy day, as a group of somewhat intense, would-be intellectual, honors students were hanging around after lunch, the conversation turned to what happens after we die. Some of us, having read something about Eastern religions, thought about reincarnation. Others, with the blasé affectation of adolescent atheism, said, “When you’re dead, you’re dead.” Still others had some vague, unformed ideas about heaven. What no one expected was Birgitta’s vehement, positive assurance that everyone was a sinner from birth, condemned to eternal lakes of fire unless they accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It was the first time, I think, that we had ever met anyone who believed in a literal hell, and we were astounded. In fact, I was so surprised by her assertion about the existence of the undying lakes of fire that I did not even notice what she said about sin and redemption.


I know that, unlike me, some of you were raised in churches that preached something similar to Birgitta’s notions of sin and hell, and what she said that day to a roomful of sophisticated, liberal Jewish teenagers would have been no surprise to you. Nevertheless, somewhere along the way, many faithful Christians have come to reject these oppressive understandings of Jesus’ teachings. Today, many people in our culture would rather think that we are born innocent, and that people are good at heart. Like my high school classmates, we find the image of unquenchable lakes of fire almost barbaric, and struggle with the idea that a loving God might consign anyone to eternal damnation.


Although I, too, struggle to understand the paradoxical nature of God, I find that those old questions about what happens after we die – while an intriguing topic to while away a rainy afternoon – are ultimately unanswerable. What I find more energizing, more engaging and more useful is the question, “How shall we live?” On the back of your bulletins, you will find a copy of a charcoal drawing by Jan Richardson, one of several to be found in Peter Storey’s new book, Listening at Golgotha, which comes from his Holy Week meditations in Duke University Chapel in 2002. Jan’s drawing shows Jesus with his head tilted to one side, as if too heavy to hold up. His eyes are closed, and he holds his wounded hand towards us, as if asking us to look at what has been done to him.


Addressing the question of how we should live, Peter Storey writes,

“A special wholeness of being happens when a person’s thoughts, words, and deeds all come together to tell the same story. That sort of congruence is what we call integrity. For most of us, no matter how ardently we seek it, total integrity eludes us. Our deeds too often fall short of our declared intentions; many of our words bear no resemblance to what we are really thinking at the time; and some of our thoughts must simply remain veiled in shame.

Jesus was different. Jesus taught as he believed, lived as he taught, and died as he lived.” [1]

One word to describe what Jesus believed, taught, lived and died is “compassion.” It has become fashionably cynical to make fun of someone who says, “I feel your pain.” That is what compassion means, to suffer with someone, to participate with love in their grief, their sickness, their pain. Because he loved them and suffered with them, Jesus healed those who were sick, gave sight to those who could not see, fed those who were hungry, and offered forgiveness to everyone who needed it. In the story of the prodigal, Jesus says that the father had compassion for his wayward child, and opened his arms in wholehearted welcome. In Luke7:11-15, we are told that in his compassion, Jesus raised a widow’s son from apparent death. In Matthew 9:35-36, we are told, “Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Even in his own sufferings on the cross, Jesus suffered with those who placed him there, asking God to forgive them because they did not understand what they were doing.


The doctrine of original sin would lead us to believe that compassion does not come naturally. It is true that compassion is not always our first impulse, but I tend to believe that people are born with about equal propensities for good and bad. Anyone who has tried to hold an adult conversation with a two-year-old in the room knows that “innocence” is a relative term – we might not blame them, of course, due to their tender years and lack of experience of the world, but most little children are self-centered, willful and manipulative. A two-year-old wants what she wants when she wants it, regardless of anyone else’s needs or desires. However, that same two-year-old, in another mood, might notice another child crying, and solemnly bring him a favorite toy or blanket to try to comfort him. This awareness of someone else’s pain, this desire to bring what comfort we can, is just as built-in as our selfishness, and is at the heart of compassion.


How can we learn compassion? It seems to me that one clue may be found in our Gospel reading for today. We read that after his cousin John baptized him, Jesus went into the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days and forty nights. This is a little hard to understand, because no ordinary mortal can survive that long without food. One explanation, of course, is that Jesus could do it because he was really the Only-Begotten of God, but that leads us into the heresy of thinking that God was just pretending to be human in Jesus, and makes his subsequent hunger equally unreal. Another possibility is that “fasted” may not have meant that he did not eat anything at all, but only ate just enough to stay alive; or that “forty days and forty nights” is not meant to be taken literally, as it is a common biblical term meanings “a very long time.” In any case, we are told that Jesus was very hungry – the translation I used in preparing this sermon says, “famished” – and the Devil came to him and tried to get him to turn stones into bread. How, or whether, Jesus could really have done that is not the point, I think, because Jesus is recorded as refusing. Similarly, Jesus refuses to throw himself down from the top of the Temple just to see if angels will save him; and he refuses the offer of political power in return for worshipping anyone or anything but God.


What does all this have to do with compassion? It seems to me that in this time in the wilderness, Jesus is intentionally reminding himself what it feels like to be hungry, powerless, and in danger. I say, “reminding himself” because I believe that, as an ordinary carpenter in an oppressed country, he probably was hungry, powerless, and in danger at other times in his life. Nevertheless, here, at the beginning of his public ministry, he pays particular attention to what it feels like to be without food, without protection, without power, so that, in the future, those feelings will be real to him when he encounters others in similar circumstances. Whether we understand the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness as happening through the agency of a literal devil, or whether – as some have suggested – they were some kind of vision or hallucination, is not particularly important. After all, either way, it would have seemed real to Jesus. That reality helps us to learn compassion. In refusing to give in to the temptation to make his own life easier, Jesus chose to suffer with those who had no choice but to suffer.


I am not at all suggesting that suffering is redemptive. What I am suggesting is that putting ourselves in the place of others, suffering with them, can help us to be less judgmental, less self-righteous, less impatient of their failings. This brings us back to sin, and its consequences. Sin is, as Peter Storey tells us, a lack of integrity, an unwillingness to speak as we believe, to live as we speak, and it is an unwillingness to die as we know we should live. When my deeds fall short of my declared intentions; when my words bear no resemblance to what I am really thinking at the time; when some of my thoughts must simply remain veiled in shame; when I harm others in order to get something for myself, I know that I am a sinner. My high school friend, Birgitta, told us that the consequence of sin was to spend eternity in a lake of fire. However, perhaps there is another consequence of sin. I would like to suggest that we might begin to think of our own sins, at least, as lessons in compassion.


I do not always want to learn compassion, of course, but God often has an unmistakable way of getting my attention. For instance, when my children were little, it was easy to condemn another mother who yelled at her child who was having a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. When my son was lying on the floor, kicking and screaming, in the post office the next day, and I was at my wit’s end, I thought of that other mother and how judgmental I had been. I began to call such incidents my “lessons in compassion.”


The lessons in compassion continue, of course. I am sure that you have all heard me frequently confess, during our prayer time, that I have been judgmental, angry or impatient. It is all too easy, for instance, to mutter nasty words under my breath at the person who cuts me off in traffic, or runs a red light in front of me when I am waiting to turn left. Nevertheless, I was humbled, recently, when I saw those flashing lights behind me, and realized that I had been so absorbed in conversation with Glen that I had simply not noticed the stop sign that was recently installed on Adams Mill, and rolled right through it. By grace the God, I got off with only a warning from the police officer, but I also learned that other “selfish drivers” might simply be momentarily distracted.

These examples may seem trivial, especially when compared to the temptations of Jesus in wilderness, or to his ministry of healing and love. Nevertheless, these, and many other, similar, incidents in my life, have shown me how much I am like others in my weakness, self-deception and simple ability to act like a jerk. They have served as lessons in compassion – opportunities to let the consequence of my sins become a greater ability to suffer with others, rather than to judge them.


I have heard it said that when people come to church, they should not try to pretend that they are perfect. Rather, following the example of a 12-step meeting, they should introduce themselves, saying, “Hi, I’m Deborah, I’m a sinner.” An up-front acknowledgment that each of us is no better than another would be an invitation to living into one another’s reality, a regular exercise in learning compassion. As we enter this Lenten time of self-examination, let me introduce myself. Hi. I’m Deborah. I’m a sinner.

[1] Peter Story, Listening at Golgotha: Jesus Words from the Cross [Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2004], pp 17-18.

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