The Compassion of God

The audio from this sermon can be listened to here: The Compassion of God.

In the Spring of 2019, I took two of our students from the Episcopal Campus Ministry on a pilgrimage to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL. We entered the museum at the same time, but quickly took to our own pace. This place which is sometimes referred to as the Lynching Memorial, consists of coffin-sized boxes of bronze, each of them stamped with recorded lynching’s by country. When you begin the journey, the boxes are eye level and with enough space to weave in and out. It was a powerful experience. Name after name, county after county, but as I navigated through the boxes, I noticed that floor began to slope, and the memorials began to hang a little higher than eye level. A corner is turned, and then it seems that there is a sea of coffin-sized boxes hanging well above your head. County after county. Wilson, Taylor, Fairfax, Warren—every county I have ever lived in has a stake in that memorial.

Thomas Reney, May 9, 1888

Bob Harper, December 28, 1892

Caleb Gadly, June 25, 1894

Robert Morton, February 3, 1897

These are the names of the men lynched in our county; these are the names of those for whom I prayed standing under that coffin-sized box hanging four feet above my head; their names under the stamped “Warren County, Kentucky,” the place that we call home.

            As you will recall, we here at Christ Church celebrated our 175th anniversary last fall, and if you do some quick math, it becomes obvious that when these men were murdered in this place we call home, there was a group of Episcopalians worshiping here. And I don’t know if their names got said from the pulpit back then, but I say them from the pulpit now to remind us that systemic racism is a sin that is literally saturates the soil upon which we stand. Even if you think that you aren’t racist, or if you think you don’t see color, this is the history with which we have to confront. And I bring this to this pulpit today not just because the white folks in the country are finally waking up to the terrible reality of the ways in which black lives have continually been shown that they don’t matter, and not just the fact that “matter” is the bare minimum of mutual humanity, much less what are called as Christians, but I also bring it because of our gospel text today. When Jesus saw the crowds, Matthew tells us, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless.

Jesus sends out his twelve disciples after he has gone around proclaiming the good news, curing the sick, being moved to compassion, he stayed with those who were harassed and helpless. Jesus sends them out into the world to proclaim the good news, not just of word only, but by their actions. They are to go and cure the sick, they are to go and raise the dead, they are to go and cleanse the lepers, they are to go and cast out demons. In essence, they are to go and not only proclaim the good news of God in Christ, but, as lay theologian and writer, Debi Thomas has put it, “Go and render believable the compassion of God.”

Beloved, I name from this pulpit the four names of the recorded lynching’s in this place that we call home because I don’t believe that we have rendered believable the compassion of God. And lest you think I’m calling out one particular group of people, a preacher often preaches to herself first. My sisters and brothers, I am outraged. I am outraged that saying that black lives matter could ever be viewed as a political statement. I am outraged that brutality from our civil servants has gone unchecked for so long. I am outraged that for eight minutes and 46 seconds, a police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck as he gasped for air and shouted “I can’t breathe!” I’m outraged that before that we heard the same cries from Eric Garner, and that long before that the cries that came from our crucified Christ could have been the same. Because it’s not the nails in the hands or the crown of thorns that forced our savior to give up his breath, but that the cross was a state-funded way to murder folks by taking their breath as they suffocated on the cross. My sisters and brothers, I am outraged at all the ways we have failed to individually and collectively make the compassion that Jesus modeled in our text the foundation of our faith and work as Christians when it comes to seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

And I’m so tired of being outraged. I’m so tired of being outraged, but what we are called to do is not abandon this anger or this pain, but rather to stay with it. Because to have compassion is literally to “suffer with.” And Jesus doesn’t just have compassion with those who are suffering, he also sends out the disciples. In the gospels, the disciples aren’t just a group of Jesus’ followers, they are so often enigmatic of us. When Jesus sends out the disciples, Jesus is literally sending us out as well.

We, like the disciples, have been called to go out and to proclaim the good news of God in Christ and also to heal, to care, to suffer with. But let us not forget that to align ourselves with the disciples is also to align ourselves with those who, as Dr. James Cone puts it in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “those who slept through [Christ’s] agony in the Garden,”[1] A question that we have to ask ourselves today and everyday going forward is are we sleeping through Christ’s agony in the Garden? It is only when we can, as Cone puts it, “meet Jesus in the crucified bodies in our midst” that we will “encounter the real scandal of the cross.”[2]

My friends, we cannot follow Christ’s call to compassion and to service that we see here in Matthew’s gospel without also hearing and responding to our black brothers and sisters crying out “I can’t breathe.” It is not until we center the cross in our lives that their freedom, and intrinsically, our own, can be found. As Cone says again, and this book is one without which I don’t think I would be able to understand the cross; for me it has changed how I regard that cross that I reverence before the alter, the one I wear around my neck, and the one that’s emblazed upon our beloved Book of Common Prayer. Cone says, “We cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualizing it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering, and death. The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.”[3]

One of the things that we use in our CEC 101 class is a Spiritual Gifts Inventory, which acknowledges that we are not all suited or gifted in the same way. I doubt that every disciple did everything that Jesus empowers them to do when he sends them out. And in the same way, we are not just called to stay with this suffering, but also to go and do, and in that to lean into who God has created us to be. If you are struggling to see your role in this great awakening that is happening all around us, if you are struggling to see how centering the cross in the midst of this season will change you, I invite you to do a few things with me.

First, don’t run away from your outrage, stay with it for Christ’s sake, for the compassion that he showed to the crowds that were harassed and helpless; don’t let it burn out hot and quick, but rather, let it be the ember that ignites a living change.

Second, as we lean into who God created us to be, we have to figure out where our gifts come into play, get in that lane, and keep our foot on the gas as we work to bring about the kingdom of God in our world today. Deepa Iyer from SolidarityIs and Building Movement Project, an organization that helps non-profits navigate systemic change has created a framework for mapping our roles in social change; it was shared with me this week by Anna Siewers, one of the college students who went on pilgrimage that I mentioned earlier. In it, Iyer describes different roles like Disruptors who shake things up and Visionaries who help cast a bolder, brighter future, but she also articulates roles like Storytellers who craft and share our common narratives and Weavers who see points of connection from seemingly disjointed groups. There are 10 roles that she has identified, and she has also created a reflection guide; our communications director Karen, is putting the link to this in the comments section of our livestream on Facebook. I invite you to fill out this reflection guide this week; prayerfully consider where your role is in our current common life and take time to come up with specific ways you can live into your created role.

Third, the Trustees and Council of our Diocese, with Bishop White have initiated West Louisville Now, a special financial plea of $200,000 that will benefit two historically black Episcopal congregations in West Louisville. The roles that these congregations play in their community can’t be underestimated as they serve in the work that God has given them to do. If you are looking for a monetary way to give back, I commend Bishop White’s letter about West Louisville Now.

Lastly, pray. Pray without ceasing, pray for the Spirit to come. Pray for the spirit that descended upon the people of God on the Day of Pentecost can stretch out and push us further to the kingdom of heaven than we can imagine or see right now. And pray that we can have the compassion that Jesus modeled for us and that we can go out like the disciples and render believable the compassion of God.

[1] Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. 156.

[2] Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. 158.

[3] Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. 156.

A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY via Livestream for Proper 6A on June 14, 2020 on Matthew 9:35-10:8.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s