God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Warm Relationships–Do Not Stay On The Surface Of Jesus’ Teachings: a Reflection on Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 and John 1:29-42

John Stott, reflecting upon the influence of Christians in the world, writes,

Let me quote from the end of Kenneth Latourette’s seven-volume history of the expansion of Christianity. Referring to Jesus he says, “No life ever lived on this planet has been so influential in the affairs of men as that of Christ. From that brief life and its apparent frustration has flowed a more powerful force for the triumphal waging of man’s long battle than any other ever known by the human race….Through it, millions of people have had their inner conflicts resolved. Through it, hundreds of millions have been lifted from illiteracy and ignorance and have been placed upon the road of growing intellectual freedom…. It has done more to allay the physical ills of disease and famine than any other impulse, and it has emancipated millions from chattel slavery….It has protected tens of millions from exploitation by their fellows, and it has been the most fruitful source of movements to lessen the horrors of war and to put the relations of men and nations on the basis of justice and peace.” This is the influence of Jesus through his followers in society. Don’t underestimate the power and the influence that even a small minority can exert in the community.[1]

Jesus and his movement accomplish influence one relationship at a time, one “warm relationship” at a time. In my own life, I think of Bill Hendrix, an elder at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita, who listened, cared, loved, acted and lived with compassion prior to, during and after my tumultuous departure from Eastminster and continues to do so today. Jesus lives his life in Bill. Jesus lives his life in you and me too. Bill continues to be the best Jesus I see. Oh I love that man.

God has a warm relationship with us. God loves us and wants us to love others with that same warmth, affection and presence. A warm relationship is characterized by listening, caring, loving, acting, being empathetic, speaking and living with compassion. As you interact with God through prayer, Bible study, small group (fellowship, learning and caring), worship, service and giving, you are encountered by Jesus through his teachings and presence.

The texts in Isaiah 19:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 and Matthew 4:12-23 demonstrate that God’s Word, written (the Bible) and living (Jesus), sets the bar for what it means to be fully human. And so often, we only scratch the surface. Our attention, however, will be riveted on the text in Matthew. Matthew gives us insight on how to develop and nurture a warm relationship with God and others.

Matthew 4:12-23 announces the importance of repentance. This text is strategically placed between Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness, on the one hand, and his Sermon on the Mount, on the other. In this text, we see Jesus implementing his mission. He calls all people to repent that is change direction from a self-driven life to one directed by God. Jesus began his work of gathering and restoring people according to God’s design of redemption/salvation. Jesus identifies twelve disciples to follow him and learn the mission all in the context of warm relationship.

Jesus taught the importance of call, healing and liberation. His mission was first directed to the people of Israel and then expanded to the Gentiles. Jesus’ mission was for everyone, but it was revealed in phases. Jesus brought the kingdom of God near to all. How? Through a warm relationship with individuals one at a time and in group settings. Repentance, the act of responding to Jesus’ teachings takes people deeper into understanding what being human is really about. Responding to Jesus’ message of healing and wholeness is life changing, a series of incremental and intentional decisions. Experiencing healing and wholeness is an ongoing process of repentance. Through repentance, God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is manifested in and through our lives.[2]

Today is The Third Sunday after the Epiphany. The Greek word epiphaneia means “manifestation.” Epiphany is the celebration of the manifestation of Jesus to the Magi and the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God, fully God and fully human, to humanity at his baptism. Observance of The Epiphany became widespread by the late fourth century.[3] Will things be different in your life because of the manifestation of Jesus? Of course. But maybe a better question is, do you expect things to be different because of the manifestation of Jesus? Richard Rohr, the author of The Universal Christ writes, “We are given permission to become intimate with our own experiences, learn from them, and allow ourselves to descend to the depth of things, even our mistakes, before we try too quickly to transcend it all in the name of some idealized purity or superiority.”[4] Trust and draw from your experience of the manifestation of Jesus Christ in your life…in your encounters through warm relationship with God and others.

God’s Word, written (the Bible) and living (Jesus), sets the bar for what it means to be fully human. And so often, we only scratch the surface. We resist critical thinking and real-life application of God’s promises. As we authentically plumb the “scary” places in our lives…. the hurts…. the misunderstandings…. the mistakes…. the misgivings…. God meets us in warm relationship. And others do as well as our vulnerability invites them in. Again Rohr writes, “God hides in the depths and is not seen as long as we stay on the surface of anything—even the depths of our sins.”[5] Be transformed by the teachings of Jesus. Don’t just scratch the surface. Dig deep into the written and living Word of God through a warm relationship with God and others. God and others will meet you in warm relationship.

[1]John Stott, “Christians: Salt and Light,” on Preaching Today, Tape No. 109.

[2]In this textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Stanley P. Saunders and Mark

Abbott in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 204-206 and 206-208.

[3]Brett Scott Provance, Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2009), 54.

[4]Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ (New York, New York: Convergent, 2019), 111.

[5]Ibid.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Warm Relationships–Christ is Not Just Jesus of Nazareth: a Reflection on Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43 and Matthew 3:13-17

We are created in the image of God. We have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and continue that conversion process throughout the rest of our lives, becoming more like Jesus. Jesus lives his life in you and me. God has a warm relationship with us. God loves us and wants us to love others with that same warmth, affection and presence.

The good news of Jesus points us to our true identity and mission in life. Our identity is in the one who creates, redeems and sustains us, the Lord God Almighty. And our mission is God’s. We participate in God’s mission of redemption and salvation. On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, we are invited to imitate the ministry and message of Jesus Christ.

The texts in Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43 and Matthew 3:13-17 demonstrate that Jesus is not just human and not just God. Jesus is fully human and fully God. Isaiah 42:1-9 describes the future engagement of God as Servant, the one who brings the Spirit of God into human experience and works for justice. The one called Servant is the one called Christ. The humanity and deity of Jesus are held together in Isaiah’s use of Servant. Acts 10:34-43 affirm that Jesus was sent by the Father for everyone. Yes, Jesus was sent for the Jews and Gentiles. We see the Church change in order to bridge the gap between cultures, Jew and Greek. The humanity and deity of Jesus are held together in the way the Church continues to change to embrace various cultures and people groups. And Matthew 3:13-17 announce that repentance is the way we prepare for God being among us and the right ongoing response to God being among us. Change in direction is the path of Christian discipleship. The humanity and deity of Jesus are held together as we repent, change directions, to be more like Jesus in his humanity and deity.[1]

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. Will things be different in your life because of your baptism? Of course. But maybe a better question is, do you expect things to be different because of your baptism? Richard Rohr, the author of The Universal Christ writes, “In God you do not include less and less; you always see and love more and more.”[2] Trust and draw from your experience in Christ, both in identity and mission. Hear God say to you, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

Long-term change in your life as a follower of Jesus depends on two things: your sense of identity and mission. In baptism, you are affirmed as a child of God. Your identity as a child of God and your union with God in Christ through baptism anchors you in God’s mission. As a Christian, you have a new sense of self and a new sense of mission. Yes, it is difficult to reach persons different than yourself, but such is the calling of being a Christian. Warm relationships with God and others, particularly those different than yourself is key to your being an effective Christian, for us being an effective church in God’s mission of redemption and salvation. A warm relationship is characterized by listening, caring, empathy, loving, acting, speaking and living in compassion.

God’s acting in Jesus who is fully human and fully God anchors our identity in Jesus and God’s mission. Practice Christian disciplines that nurture your humanity in the things that pertain to God. Adopt spiritual practices that support and nurture your baptismal identity. Be confirmed in and transformed by Christ who is not just Jesus of Nazareth. Be confirmed in and transformed by Jesus who is both human and God.

[1]In this textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of James H. Evans Jr., John C. Holbert, Stephen Harris, Matthew L. Skinner, Stanley P. Saunders and Mark Abbott in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 162-164, 164-166, 169-1170, 171-172, 173-174 and 175-176.

[2]Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ (New York, New York: Convergent, 2019), 52.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today–We Belong to Each Other: a Reflection on Ephesians 1:3-14 and John 1:10-18

Today is the Second Sunday after Christmas. Why is that important? The most significant event in history occurred at the birth of Jesus. Jesus’ birth changed everything. The incarnation is the historic event when God the Father made himself known as God the Son. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, was both true God and true man. God descended to us, to save us, because we are incapable to ascend to God to be saved. That’s why remembering the Second Sunday after Christmas is important.

“For God so loved the world.” God empathizes with each one of us. Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…”[1] It is through empathy that we demonstrate compassion. When we demonstrate compassion through empathy, we become interlocked with one other. Father Gregory Boyle, the author of Tattoos on the Heart, reminds us that we belong to each other. The world’s ills are rooted in the reality that we have forgotten that we belong to each other. Boyle writes, “Kinship is what happens when we refuse to let that happen. With kinship as the goal, other essential things fall into place; without it, no justice, no peace.”[2]

The texts in Ephesians 1:3-14 and John 1:10-18 affirm that we belong to each other and that is God’s intention. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it. Ephesians 1:3-14 describes how God has brought each one of us into a new definition of community. God saves, rescues, liberates and prepares us to bear witness to God’s empathy and grace. How is that accomplished? Through one another. Think about it. When you were born, you did not survive without receiving comprehensive care from others. Without the love of God being lived out though our families, friends and churches, we’d be in big trouble. John 1:10-18 affirms Jesus’ oneness with God and humanity. Jesus knows us. Jesus lives his life in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. We receive grace upon grace from God. It is in that way that the light of Christ is seen in and through each one of us. The light of Jesus Christ is seen, heard and known through our interactions with others as we heal, teach and love in the name of Jesus Christ.[3]

We belong to each other. The God who creates us is the same God who saves us, the same God who lives in us, and will be the same God who returns to take us to live with him forever. Jesus emptied his life for each one of us. We are to empty our lives for others. Father Boyles relates how he lives for others, because he belongs to others, when he addresses how he speaks on a rotating basis at twenty-five detention institutions in Los Angeles County—juvenile halls, probation camps, jails and state youth authority facilities. Boyle writes, “After Mass, in the gym or chapel or classroom, I hand out my card. The infomercial is always the same: Call me when you get out. I’ll hook you up with a job—take off your tattoos—line ya up with a counselor. I won’t know where you are, but with this card, you’ll know where I am. Don’t slow drag. Cuz if you do, you’ll get popped again and end up right back here. So call me.”[4]

The incarnation calls you to walk in the interval between birth and death with empathy…. God is for you, not against you. Be empathetic with others. Why? We belong to each other. That is God purposed. Ponder that truth today and see what a difference it can make in resolving injustice and despair in human experience.

[1]This definition of empathy is taken from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

[2]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York, New York: Free Press, 2010), 187.

[3]In this textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Richard F. Ward, Stephen B. Boyd, Kristin Stroble and Jill Duffield in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 137-139, 139-140, 141-143 and 143-145.

[4]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, 187.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today–We’re In Jesus’ Jurisdiction: a Reflection on Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7 and Matthew 1:18-25

This is The Fourth Sunday of Advent. The Love Candle is lit. The Hope, Peace and Joy Candles remain lit. Advent anticipates the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah. Advent is about the incarnation. The incarnation is the historic event when God the Father made himself known as God the Son. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, was both true God and true man. God descended to us, because we are incapable to ascend to God. In Jesus Christ, God descended to save…to give us hope, peace, joy and love, no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Such is the promise of Advent.

God’s promise of a Messiah is grounded in God’s intention to reconcile each one of us to the Father and to transform broken lives and a broken world. “For God so loved the world.” God, who empathizes with each one of us, reaches out continuously with grace. Grace, God’s unmerited favor for you, me and all people creates hope, peace, joy and love. Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…”[1] It is through empathy that we demonstrate compassion. And our compassion for others displays hope, peace, joy and love. Father Gregory Boyle, the author of Tattoos on the Heart, writes,

One day as I’m walking past, lost in my own thoughts, I fail to see him [Junior]. Then after I had gone beyond his apartment and the alley, Junior screams full-throttle, “LOVE YOU G-DOG.” … “Thank you, Junior. That was a very nice thing to say.” Junior waves me on…” Oh, come on now, G, you know,” he says, spinning his hand in a circular motion, “You’re in my jurisdiction.” I can’t be entirely sure what Junior meant. Except for the fact that we all need to see that we are in each other’s “jurisdictions,” spheres of acceptance—only, all the time.[2]

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, jurisdiction is “the power, right, or authority to interpret and apply the law.” God interprets and applies the Law with hope, peace, joy and love. We’re in Jesus’ jurisdiction, Jesus’ sphere of acceptance all the time.

The texts in Isaiah 7:10-16, Romans 1:1-7 and Matthew 1:18-25 affirm that we’re in Jesus’ jurisdiction of hope, peace, joy and love all the time. Nothing happens by accident or without purpose. God has “this one” and “that one” and “all the ones,” because we’re in Jesus’ jurisdiction. Isaiah 7:10-16 depicts the worst king in Judah’s history, because he was faithless in providing jurisdiction for the benefit of the people. The Lord, however, was fully trustworthy with God’s jurisdiction. God gave a sign of confirmation. The sign was that a young woman would give birth to a son and the son would be named Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Romans 1:1-7 demonstrates that God is trustworthy, because through the Messiah Jesus, “God with us,” death does not win. The gospel will never fail us. Matthew1:18-25 asserts that the theme of the incarnation is the declaration that Jesus is not a special baby, but Immanuel, “God with us.” The angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her she would bear a son, the Savior of the world. Mary believed the promise and so did Joseph despite the swirling questions of Mary’s pregnancy. The Holy Spirit was the cause of Mary’s pregnancy. Joseph was the legal, but not the biological father of Jesus. The birth of Jesus happened safely in God’s jurisdiction.[3]

New life is possible for everyone. Hope, peace, joy and love is yours to experience. Because God loves the world, God sent his Son that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. The God who creates us is the same God who saves us, the same God who lives in us, and will be the same God who returns to take us to live with him forever. Jesus’ jurisdiction is experienced in the self-emptying of oneself for the sake of another. Jesus did that for each one of us.

Advent calls you to walk in the interval between birth and death with empathy…. with hope, peace, joy and love. God is for you, not against you. Be empathetic with others. We’re in Jesus’ jurisdiction, Jesus’ sphere of acceptance all the time.

[1]This definition of empathy is taken from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

[2]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York, New York: Free Press, 2010), 129-130.

[3]In this textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Sharyn Dowd, James D. Freeman, Emerson P. Powery, Anna Olson, Sharyn Dowd and Lauren F. Winner in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 50-52, 52-53, 56-57, 58-60, 61-63 and 63-64.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers–Baptism, Regeneration And Conversion: a Reflection on Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10 and Matthew 11:2-11

This is The Third Sunday of Advent. The Joy Candle is lit. The Hope and Peace Candles remain lit. Advent anticipates the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah. Jesus, the Messiah, Savior and Lord ushers in a new kingdom and brings order to the world. Advent is about the incarnation. The incarnation is the historic event when God the Father made himself known as God the Son. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, was both true God and true man. God descended to us, because we are incapable to ascend to God. In Jesus Christ, God descended to save…to give us hope, peace and joy, no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Such is the promise of Advent.

God, who empathizes with each one of us, reaches out continuously with grace. Grace, God’s unmerited favor for you, me and all people creates hope, peace and joy. Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…”[1] It is through empathy that we demonstrate compassion. And our compassion for others displays hope, peace and joy. Father Gregory Boyle, the author of Tattoos on the Heart, writes, “I suppose that the number of homies I’ve baptized over the decades in in the thousands. Gang members find themselves locked up and get around to doing things their parents didn’t arrange for them. Homies are always walking up to me at Homeboy Industries or on the streets or in a jail, saying, ‘Remember? You baptized me!’”[2] God’s empathy reaches us prior to regeneration, conversion and baptism.

The texts in Isaiah 35:1-10, James 5:7-10 and Matthew11:2-11 anticipate the fulfillment of one’s regeneration, conversion and baptism. Isaiah 35:1-10 depicts that creation and God’s people receive healing and restoration. Matthew11:2-11 asserts specific examples of healing and restoration. And, those examples have literal and spiritual implications. Matthew also records that John the Baptist may have been discouraged about his life and ministry. He may have had too high of expectations of himself and Jesus. What we do know is that Jesus highlights John’s strength and courage in the face of persecution and injustice. Jesus draws parallels between John’s mission and his.[3] Jesus points the way for the mission of his followers as well.

Empathy is rooted in joy. What is joy? Joy is a sustainable contentment. New life is possible for everyone. Because God loves the world, God sent his Son that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. God has promised you salvation eternally and now. Christians live and wait in hope, peace and joy for God’s promised healing and restoration. John Buchanan, Pastor Emeritus of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago writes this about joy, “The contrasts of Advent reflect the paradoxical polarities of Christian faith: strength in weakness, power in self-emptying, winning in losing, receiving in giving, living in dying, the almightiness in a manger, resurrection in crucifixion.” [4] Joy is experienced in the self-emptying of oneself for the sake of another. That was the way of John the Baptist and Jesus. It is our way too.

Celebrate your regeneration, the work of God changing your heart and mind to want God in your life. Celebrate your conversion, which is an ongoing process of becoming more like Jesus. Celebrate your baptism. Be empathetic with others. Therein lies joy.

[1]This definition of empathy is taken from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

[2]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York, New York: Free Press, 2010), 83.

[3]In this textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Leanne Van Dyke, David A. Jones, Jin Young Choi, John M. Buchanan, Raj Nadella and Daniel L. Smith-Christopher in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 34-36, 36-38, 42-43, 44-45, 46-48 and 48-49.

[4]John M. Buchanan in Connections, Year A, Volume 1, 45.

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers–What’s Compassion Have To Do With Anything: a Reflection on Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12

Last week was the First Sunday of Advent. The Hope Candle was lit and remains lit today. Hope, that things can be different, personally, interpersonally and in local, national and world affairs, is important. George Santayana (1863-1952) writes, “There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.”[1] Hope assists us to enjoy the interval, because it compels us to live differently in the present. Such is the promise of the First Sunday of Advent.

Today is The Second Sunday of Advent. The Peace Candle is lit. Advent anticipates the fulfillment of God’s promise of the Messiah. Jesus, the Messiah, Savior and Lord ushers in a new kingdom and brings order to the world. He makes things right. Jesus offers peace to humanity. Such is the promise of the Second Sunday of Advent.

Father Gregory Boyle, the author of Tattoos on the Heart, tells the following story:

In 1993, I taught a course at Folsom Prison. “Theological Issues in American Short Fiction.” From the beginning, the inmates said they wanted me to teach them something. Just not Scripture…So we would sit around in the chapel, some fifteen lifers and myself, and discuss short stories…One of the stories was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” After they read it, we come to the Grandmother’s transformation of character…My students speak of this woman’s change and seem to use these terms interchangeably: sympathy, empathy, and compassion…I ask these felons to define their terms. “Well, sympathy,” one begins, is when your homie’s mom dies and you go up to him and say ‘’Spensa—sorry to hear ‘bout your moms.’” Just as quickly, there is a volunteer to define empathy. “Yeah, well, empathy is when your homie’s mom dies and you say, ‘’Spensa, ‘bout your moms. Sabes que, my moms died six months ago. I feel ya, dog.’” “Excellent,” I say. “Now, what’s compassion?” Finally, an old-timer, down twenty-five years, tentatively raises his finger. I call on him. “Well, now,” he says,…”Compassion—that’s sumthin’ altogether different.” “Cause,” he adds humbly, “That’s what Jesus did. I mean, Compassion…IS…God.”[2]

Compassion is not a fleeting, come and go emotion. It is the application of empathy. Father Boyle writes, “God is compassionate, loving kindness. All we’re asked to do is to be in the world who God is.”[3]

Our compassionate God who empathizes with each one of us reaches out continuously with grace. Grace, God’s unmerited favor for you, me and all people creates peace. And it is when we have peace that things can be different, and sin does not have to have its way. We can begin to have empathy. Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…”[4] It is through empathy that we demonstrate compassion.

As I told you last week, I am a member of the Rotary Club of Mission Viejo. I have been a Rotarian since 2002. Our mission is “Service Above Self.” And we have The Four-Way Test to assist us with integrity and ethical standards. The Four-Way Test reads, “Of the things we think, say, or do: Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? And, will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? Empathy is required to be successful at The Four-Way Test. Without practicing empathy, The Four-Way Test is doomed to certain failure.

The texts in Isaiah 11:1-10, Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12 all tap into empathy in that they anticipate the fulfillment of the transformative justice of the kingdom of God. Isaiah 11:1-10 sets forth the vision for a new heaven and earth that makes a difference now. Justice is necessary for anyone to embrace empathy. Isaiah 11:10 reads, “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him…” Being empathetic promotes peace.

Romans 15:4-13 urges Christians to speak with one voice. Paul pleads with Christians to stop sacrificing unity in Christ on the altar of individualism as expressed in our insistence on individual opinions, convictions, commitments and interpretations of doctrine and Scripture.[5] Unity is necessary for anyone to embrace empathy. Romans 15:13 reads, “May the God of hope fill you with…peace in believing…” Being empathetic promotes peace.

Matthew 3:1-12 records that John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus. The forerunner, John the Baptist, told the truth and promoted the imminent arrival of the Messiah, the one who would implement the forerunner’s message. John the Baptist warned the people not to rest on their laurels or traditions. He called the people to bear fruit worthy of repentance, that is a change of mind and in living. John the Baptist was speaking of the wrath of God, taking an ax to the roots of all falsehood and cleansing corruption with a burning fire. These images were to cause the people to lean into the compassion of Jesus. Jesus is necessary for anyone to embrace empathy. Matthew 3:11a and d reads, “I baptize with water for repentance…He [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Being empathetic promotes peace.[6]

Empathy illumines the light of Christ in and through us. Speaking about the words he would use at the memorial service for one of the boys in his ministry, Homeboy Industries in East Los Angeles, who was gunned down, Father Boyle writes, “I landed on the gospel that I wanted to use at his liturgy. Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world.’…Jesus doesn’t say, ‘One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you’ll be light.’ He doesn’t say ‘If you play by the rules, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, then maybe you’ll become light.’ No, he says, straight out,’ ‘You are light.’ It is the truth of who you are, waiting for you to discover it.”[7] In order to move from our tiny view of God, we must expand the grace of peace by receiving God’s empathy (grace) and engage others with empathy (grace).

Advent calls you to walk in the interval between birth and death with empathy. Act with understanding. Be aware of and be sensitive to the feelings, thoughts and experience of the other. It is through empathy given and received that people experience peace.

Empathy demonstrates compassion. So what does compassion have to do with anything? Compassion ushers in God’s transformative justice. “The evils of war, violence, and oppression shall be stomped out. The most vulnerable, whose lives are threatened by the lack of health care and poor education, shall experience the bounty of the world’s resources.”[8] What is right will be vindicated as right. And, what is wrong will be identified as wrong. The time is now to stand up in empathy for “service above self” brings justice in our relationships and communities. Demonstrate empathy! Act with compassion! Be at peace with yourself and others!

[1]George Santayana, “War Shrines,” Soliloquies in England and later Soliloquies, 1922.

[2]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York, New York: Free Press, 2010), 62.

[3]Ibid.

[4]This definition of empathy is taken from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

[5]Adapted from John M. Buchanan in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 27-28.

[6]In all three sections of textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Leanne Van Dyke, David A. Jones, Jin Young Choi, John M. Buchanan, Raj Nadella and Daniel L. Smith-Christopher in Connections, Year A, Volume 1, 17-19, 19-21, 24-26, 26- 28, 29-31 and 31-33.

[7]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, 108.

[8]David A. Davis in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 19.

 

God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today–God and Dis-Grace: a Reflection on Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14 and Matthew 24:36-44

Dis-grace is strapped on the back of each one of us. Shame and guilt are major motivators and hindrances in human experience. Our true human identity, however, is determined by God. And it is good, freed from shame and guilt. It is by receiving God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor for us, that we begin to have hope that life can be lived from a different vantage point than shame and guilt. Hope keeps us wanting more and more grace, because it is through grace that we change and are transformed. And change happens when we experience empathy. Lee Eclov in his sermon Heaven tells the following story about being ready, because of grace, hope and empathy:

Robby Robins was an Air Force pilot during the first Iraq war. After his 300th mission, he was surprised to be given permission to immediately pull his crew together and fly his plane home. They flew across the ocean to Massachusetts and then had a long drive to western Pennsylvania. They drove all night, and when his buddies dropped him off at his driveway just after sun-up, there was a big banner across the garage—Welcome Home Dad! How did they know? No one had called, and the crew themselves hadn’t expected to leave so quickly. Robins relates, ‘When I walked into the house, the kids, about half dressed for school, screamed, ‘Daddy!’ Susan came running down the hall—she looked terrific—hair fixed, make-up on, and a crisp yellow dress. ‘How did you know?’ I asked. ‘I didn’t,’ she answered through tears of joy. ‘Once we knew the war was over, we knew you’d be home one of these days. We knew you’d try to surprise us, so we were ready every day.’[1]

It is God’s grace that led and leads Gregory Boyle to love and walk with gang members in east Los Angeles. Father Boyle has empathy with and for the “homies” in east Los Angeles. Grace, God’s unmerited favor for you, me and all people creates hope. And it is when we have hope that things can be different…people’s lives can be different…and sin does not have to have its way that we begin to have empathy. Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…”[2] It is through empathy that we experience hope.

This is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent anticipates the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Messiah and portends the second coming of the Messiah as well. The First Sunday of Advent is about hope! Hope is experienced as we take seriously the person and purpose of Jesus Christ. Jesus has empathy for you and for me; for all people.

As I told you last week, I am a member of the Rotary Club of Mission Viejo. I have been a Rotarian since 2002. Our motto is “Service Above Self.” And we have The Four-Way Test to assist us with integrity and ethical standards. The Four-Way Test reads, “Of the things we think, say, or do: Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? And, will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? Empathy is required to be successful at The Four-Way Test.

The texts in Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14 and Matthew 24:36-44 call Christians to stand up and be counted. For Christians, the new heaven and earth is always being made. Isaiah 2:1-5 is the prophesy of a new kingdom of God and a new people of God who would seek after salvation, learn from the Lord, and walk in the Lord’s ways. This prophecy was for then, now and the future. God began the new kingdom with Abraham’s call and continued it through the judges, kings and prophets. And, the new kingdom will be fulfilled in the Messiah with the new heaven and new earth. Isaiah 2:5 reads, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” The hope of new life was then, now and yet to come.

Romans 13:11-14 speaks to Christians about presenting themselves as living sacrifices. Paul challenges Christians to see the sacrifice as living in harmony with others in community. Yes, pay what one owes the government. This is required. It is not a debt. The only debt we have is to others and that debt is to love them. Romans 13:13-14 reads, “…let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The hope of new life was then, now and yet to come.

Matthew 24:36-44 records that Jesus’ return is certain, but not predictable. Given this dilemma, Christians must be prepared for the Second Coming of Christ. The way we prepare, according to Matthew, is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and side with the marginalized. When we do this, we serve Jesus. We stand up for Jesus. Matthew is clear that being unprepared is known by excessive behavior to the contrary of the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. Humans obsess with what they want to know. Christians obsess on what they would like to know. There is a significant difference between “want to know” and “like to know.” Matthew 24:42 reads, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day the Lord is coming”[3] The hope of new life was then, now and yet to come.

People who trust the God of the future and have hope in this God will never be complacent about the present or future. Why? Because Christians like to know how to be ready for Jesus now, tomorrow and when he returns in the twinkling of an eye. In Jesus Christ, all of life’s “issues” have been resolved. We need to receive God’s empathy and begin to relate to and with others through empathy. Gregory Boyle, the author of Tattoos on the Heart, writes, “God can get tiny, if we’re not careful…God would seem to be too occupied in being unable to take Her eyes off of us to spend any time raising an eyebrow in dis-approval. What’s true of Jesus is true for us, and so this voice breaks through the clouds and comes straight at us. ‘You are my Beloved, in whom I am wonderfully pleased.’ There is not much ‘tiny’ in that.”[4] In order to move from our tiny view of God, we must expand the grace of hope by receiving God’s empathy (grace) and engage others with empathy (grace).

Having empathy for others is the action of loving others which inspires hope that sin will not have the last word. Thank God for God’s empathy toward you. Believe that God will fulfill all of God’s promises for you. Allow hope to move you to engage others in and with empathy so that they too can experience the fulfillment of God’s promises. Today is the day to lead and love with empathy. The time is now to stand up in empathy for “service above self” in our relationships and communities. Stand up and be counted! Have empathy! Be ready! Amen!

[1]Taken from Lee Eclov’s sermon Heaven, as found on PreachingToday.com.

[2]This definition of empathy is taken from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

[3]In all three sections of textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Leanne Van Dyke, David A. Jones, Jin Young Choi, John M. Buchanan, Raj Nadella and Daniel L. Smith-Christopher in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 1-4, 4-5, 8-10, 10-11, 12-14 and 14-16.

[4]Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York, New York: Free Press, 2010), 19-20.