Jesus: Compassionate Community

The Sunday Sermon:  Fifth Sunday after Epiphany – February 9, 2020

Scripture:  Luke 6:32-38

Hear the sermon now:  

Jesus: Compassionate Community

Once a Samurai came to the master Hakuin and asked, “Master, tell me, is there really such a thing as heaven and hell?”

The master was quiet for quite some time while gazing at the man.

“Who are you?” he asked at last.

“I am a samurai swordsman, and a member of the emperor’s personal guard,” he replied.

“You? A samurai?” said Hakuin doubtfully. “What kind of emperor would have you for a guard? You look more like a beggar!”

“What?!” the samurai stammered, growing red in the face.

“You don’t look at all like a guard,” the master continued, “and you’ve come asking for knowledge like a beggar.”

The samurai grew hotter and as he stood up he reached for his sword.

“Oho!” said Hakuin. “So you have a sword, do you! I’ll bet it’s much too dull to cut off my head!”

The samurai could no longer contain himself. He drew his sword and readied to strike the master.

Hakuin replied quickly, “That is hell.”

The samurai, understanding the truth in the master’s word and the risk the master had taken, sheathed his sword and bowed low.

“Now,” said the master, “that … is heaven.”

Let us pray …

Jesus: Fully Human.

Jesus: Fully Human and so … Divine? A question in that declaration, but a possibility for 21st Century Christians, I suggest.

Jesus: As fully human and divine, he offers Something New. The Kingdom of God on earth.

Now, as we continue in our exploration of the central figure in our faith, we ask: What does that “Something New” look like? And the answer to this question is not found in a “belief” in him. It’s not found in a confession about him. It’s not even found in simple lesson from him. The answer to what was, and still is, new in and about and from him is found in a community. A very different kind of community.

You see, a movement came into existence during Jesus’ lifetime even though that life was cut short and his public activity was very brief. Marcus Borg writes that it was a deeply Jewish movement, both in constituency – that is, in those that made up the movement – and in vision, that is, in the way it looked at the world (The Heart of Christianity, 91), deeply Jewish. The community that gathered around Jesus and gathered with Jesus was also, in its Jewish context, remarkably inclusive. It subverted the sharp social boundaries of the day, its most visible public activity being an inclusive meal practice.

This meal was very often targeted by his greatest critics – the scribes and the Pharisees, committed to the holiness and cleanliness laws practiced for the past three thousand years; and the Roman pawns and procurators, committed to the worship of Empire, power, and money. It was under the condemning eyes of those who finally betray him, sentence him, and crucify him, that Jesus met, walked, healed, taught, laughed, cried, lived, and died with the marginalized and the outcasts in communion with all others in a simultaneously religious and political act of compassionate community. This inclusive society affirmed that unity and inclusivity – not the sharply divided and exclusive world of the domination system, political or religious – is the will and way of God. Jesus’ community was a manifestation of the Kingdom of God … Where and when?! … Not out there. And not “yet to come.” Here and now.

Listen for the Word of God. Read Luke 6:32-38. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

For any following along in our pew bibles, what last word did I change? Right … I used the word “compassionate” instead of merciful. Other translations do. Our NRSV does not. That’s too bad, but it just means we have to explore a little deeper, something we’ve been doing since Jesus’ baptism a month ago. Every translation is an interpretation. Compassion is different than mercy and being compassionate is different from being merciful. You can hear it even as I speak the words, mercy and merciful implies a “superior to subordinate” relationship and some sense that somebody did something wrong. We are “merciful” toward someone to whom we may have the right to act otherwise. “Compassion” suggests something else. Jesus’ community was surely a merciful one, but it was more, too – it was a compassionate one..

Other translations use the word “holy” – be holy as God is holy. But this translation, too, clouds the profoundly counter-cultural and counter-religious “something new” that Jesus engaged in. I noted earlier that the movement that came into being during Jesus’ lifetime was deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. It was not, however, rooted in the dominant Jewish expression that insisted that holiness was the quality of God to be embodied in community. Jesus taught and lived an alternative social vision centered in compassion. Compassion should be the quality of God most powerfully and practically embodied in community (Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Borg 49).

In fact, for Jesus and those who would follow him, for you and I who follow Jesus today, compassion was, and must be, more than a quality of God to be imitated and more than a personal, individual virtue. Jesus’ compassion was, and is, a social paradigm, a core value for life in community. The compassionate community of Jesus challenged the dominant socio-political paradigm of the Roman Empire and it challenged the socio-religious paradigm of first century Judaism.

The clash that such a community would have had with the Empire of the day seems easy to imagine. We’ve spent a lot of time on how Jesus and his followers challenged Roman Imperial authority, most provocatively on Palm Sunday. That week got him killed. But the clash between being “holy and pure” and being “compassionate” may be harder to understand. The differences may seem trivial and the goals may seem to be essentially the same. But in first century Jewish Palestine, purity was anything but trivial.

The purity system, grounded in the commandment to be holy as God is holy, structured Jewish society. Your purity depended to some extent on your birth, but also on your behavior. And most damaging to “community” as we are trying to understand it, purity got attached to physical wholeness and economic class. Those who were maimed, deformed, chronically ill, and those who were abjectly pure were “impure.” Purity and impurity were associated with the contrast between male and female. Generally speaking men in their natural state were thought to be more pure than women in theirs. And finally, of course, purity was powerfully attached to whether you were Jew or Gentile. By definition, all Gentiles were impure and unclean.

To sum it up, the effect of the purity system in Jesus’ time was to create a world of sharp social boundaries of pure and impure, righteous and sinner, whole and not whole, male and female, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile (52). And at the center of the system was the temple and the priesthood. They ordered not only religious practice, but society, itself.

To all this – Empire and Temple – Jesus said, “No … no.” Unequivocally and unapologetically all the way to his death.

There should be no mistaking the scriptural condemnation of the sharp social boundaries that this purity system created. The Hebrew scriptures from which Jesus taught and the New Testament writings that Jesus inspired all speak to compassion for the alien, the widow, the orphan and the poor.  And yet, I’m struck, I always have been, at how contemporary practices of Christianity reflect so many of those ancient ones. Our emphasis on individual piety and purity; our insistence on right practice and doctrine; our preferences for physical beauty and economic wealth. All this, of course, mirrored in our distrust of communal practices; our suspicion of alternative theologies; and our disdain for weakness and poverty. To some extent the ancient associations resulted from popular religious wisdom which say wealth and beauty and power as a blessing from God and their opposites as evidence of a life not lived “right” (51).   Again, I’m struck by how our contemporary mindsets and practices still listen to that ancient foolishness.

To all of this and anything more that sought to deceive, deride, and divide, Jesus said, “No.”

In the message and activity of Jesus we see something different, something new, or something ancient long forgotten: a community shaped not by the code and politics of purity, but by the character of compassion. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” His teachings indicted a system that emphasized tithing and sacrifice and neglected justice, speaking of purity on the inside, not on the outside. One of his heaviest critiques of what was passing for “holiness” is the theme of the Good Samaritan parable, a critique of life ordered around purity. And if his teaching was not enough, his “doing,” his activities, challenged the status quo even more. His healings shattered all boundaries – he touched lepers and hemorrhaging women; he entered graveyards and approached those possessed; he drove the money changers and animal sacrificers out of the temple, itself. Remarkable in his day.

And the most powerfully symbolic and practical activity of all was his open and inclusive table fellowship. Meals in Jesus time and place were a microcosm of the social system. We’d like to think that’s not so true today but take a moment to think about those you invite to share your meals. I’ll bet the table is pretty homogenous gathering. Jesus invited us all. The meals of Jesus embodied an alternative vision of an inclusive community. His last meal asks us all to remember that. Have we?

Any interpretation of Scripture and any articulation of the Christian faith should see the Bible and share a life of compassion, not purity. Unfortunately, we know that so often, too often, this is not the case. Our culture, a culture which increasingly maximizes the rewards for achievements and the penalties for failing to live up to the standards it sets; a culture that rewards the wealthy and celebrates the beautiful, too often guides our faith lives. Individualism, so valued in the communities beyond the church, makes virtues like compassion (if it’s lifted up at all) a personal trait. But it’s not. It’s a political one. Compassion must be the paradigm used for public policies (60) that would create balances in our political life that could control the excesses that are creating social, economic, cultural, racial, and gender divides of our time.

To all of this and anything more that sought to include, lift up, and empower all human life, Jesus said, “Yes.”

The spiritual life and the compassionate community are not split apart in the message and the life of Jesus, much as the church or individual Christians throughout history have tried. An image of the Christian life, our life, shaped by a true image of Jesus includes two focal points: a relationship with the Spirit of God and a community of compassion – a community where any, and all, swords are sheathed and heaven is experienced on earth. A community where all are not only welcomed, but fed – body and soul.

When our homes are full of goodness in abundance, when we learn how to make peace instead of war, when each stranger that we meet is called a neighbor, then we know that God still goes the road with us.

If you’re comfortably able to stand, please join me and let us sing of the Kingdom of God. Amen.

Joel Weible, Pastor

Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / February 9, 2020