Pentecost 14, September 6, 2020
Hear, O people: the Lord your God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul and with all your strength. And love your neighbour as yourself. This is the fulfilling of the law. Amen.
We can never know how another person truly feels. Some who are wise among us have experience and imagination. But the time and place each of us occupies is unique. Anyone who says, “I understand what you are going through” ultimately falls short, for it is a reflection from another perspective. What bridges that gap is the law of love.
We have the great commandment to love our neighbour as ourself. This call is general, but it is expressed in particularity. How do I love this person right in front of me, at this time, in what he or she is feeling and doing? In our interactions, there are some things about a person that are easy to love. There are other traits and behaviours that are annoying, disgusting, embarrassing, and downright unloveable. Our nearest and dearest are the best at pushing our emotional buttons. We are vulnerable to be hurt and to hurt others. Sometimes this is not consciously malicious, but to evoke a response. How much will you put up with? How much do you really love me even if I lash out?
There are times when it is difficult to acknowledge love. For example, when another person has pushed us away, or is acting in a manner different from the way I would react. Take grief. In a family, different members can show very different responses to a death. I can get impatient: “why can’t they just get over it?”. Or conversely, think that they are cold and unfeeling because they don’t show their emotion the way I would. One individual is mourning by trying to take care of practicalities for the sake of others, while another is withdrawn and weepy: they each are processing in their own way. Empathy asks us to reach beyond what we are feeling personally to recognize the emotional range of another, even if it doesn’t match our own.
The Ten Commandments were given to help the community live together with boundaries for behaviour that are defined by love. With God’s help, they keep us from lashing out at each other in anger, frustration, greed, despair, and grief. Our neighbours are to be treated as we want to be treated ourselves. The guide of God’s law reminds us of what it looks like to be kind and just and caring when we apply those standards to our behaviour.
In the public school system has been a very successful program called “Roots of Empathy”. Children are assisted with their social emotional development through exposure to babies and their mothers within the classroom. Through simple interactions, children learn kindness and gentleness. They are less likely to show aggressive behaviours generally because they have had the opportunity to get to know a little one personally. No longer is love abstract, but wears a face and has a name. Affection comes as a result of not only witnessing the smiles and hand claps, but the reality of the day to day needs of diapers and feeding and comfort that every little one needs. And as the baby grows, the class gets to see the changes and moods that mark us as unique individuals.
Each person processes emotions in their own way. We are called to walk alongside them as best we can. When we don’t understand what someone is going through, which is, admit it, most of the time, we can call on God’s help. Our own experience and wisdom may be helpful, but we have to be careful not to do harm by imposing our assumptions and judgments on another. We need to find ways to listen and witness to another person’s pain and struggle without trying to fix them ourselves. That’s a temptation to anyone with empathy. We just want to make it better, don’t we? But that is the work of the individual.
Psychologist Parker Palmer has introduced the idea of “Clearness Committees” into his work with many different groups, including those in the helping professions. Counsellors, teachers, pastors, social workers, have all found new ways to relate empathetically through “Courage to Change” conferences and retreats. I attended a series in Sorrento a couple of years ago and found some of his precepts very helpful both personally and for my ministry. For time when we are discerning an important question in our lives, we may have trusted friends who could help us sift through the layers, but they can each bring their own advice, experiences, and presumptions. The dynamic behind a Clearness Committee is to have a circle of people who are able to ask open-ended questions of you with the goal of uncovering your inner resources. Their job is to witness to you speaking your own truth, with the help of the Holy Spirit through your conscience, to arrive at a learning. What a gift to have a group committed to actively listening without telling you what to do! Like the friends of Job in the Bible, wisdom comes from their silence and attentiveness, not the words out of their mouths.
Often we try to show our relatedness to the other’s situation by telling one of our own stories in response to their story. Although this can be helpful when offered as a part of ourselves, it sometimes turns out to be an ego exercise. “You think you’ve got it bad. When I was a teenager…”. Our hidden instruction is not gratefully accepted, to our surprise. Love is being able to listen without trying to move to response or judgment so quickly. We have an example today from one of the gospels. In Matthew 18, Jesus is speaking of forgiveness. He outlines a process for reconciliation: “If another members of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church…”. The steps are more about the ability of each of the parties to listen to each other in love as they are about any discipline.
Both the New Testament and the gospel give an urgency to this practice of acting in love. We are not to let emotions and hurts fester. After all, we don’t ever know how much time we have. Isn’t it all the more important to “live honourably” as St. Paul tells us in light of the fact that we will not be here forever? What we do each day is an opportunity to treat each being as we would want to be treated. In the love of God, we are not to give up, even when we are frustrated or turned off by the other’s actions or behaviour.
The irony at the end of the gospel reading is Jesus’ admonition: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”. But who did God reach out to in love through Jesus? Even those whose behaviour went beyond the bounds of empathy for the Jews. They didn’t think that heaven had a place for either Gentiles or tax collectors. God has a different view of who is loveable.
This week in Vancouver, there were a series of distressing incidents in which members of a radically conservative group- I don’t want to call them a church- were publicly inciting conflict by preaching hate against the LGBTQ2S+ communities on street corners. I used to work at St. Paul’s in the West end of Vancouver, and I know the Davie community as a diverse, vibrant and loving neighbourhood. What upsets me most is that the perpetrators had no willingness to listen or to engage with those to whom their message of damnation was targeted. This “repent or else burn” message is not gospel because there is no attempt to love the particular neighbour, only a condemnation of all.
Whether we judge that someone is loveable or not, a neighbour or not, someone whom we want to reconcile with or not, the law of love calls us beyond our assumptions. Especially for those who feel things in ways that are very different from our own, the challenge is to meet them halfway to listen and learn the yearnings for the love in their heart. If God’s law of love guides us, we can do no harm. Amen.