August 12, 2007
Sermon by Allan Henden & Don Portwood
Preached by Allan Henden at Lyndale United Church of Christ, Minneapolis
Scriptures: Amos 5.21 – 24 Luke 6.26 - 36
Today, as our pastor needs to be with family, I am picking up on what he started in this sermon, Spiritual Practices: Open-hearted Compassion and Justice, which continues his summer series on Spiritual Practices. It won’t be vintage Don, but here goes my best try at it.
How can there be, you may ask, spiritual practices related to compassion and justice. Aren’t spiritual practices about developing your own internal spiritual life and relationship with God? Well, from Don’s series so far, we already know that spiritual practices can never be wholly personal and contained in our interior life. They must and will spill out into our relationships with others and the world. And this is certainly true of practices around compassion and justice. But, these are not wholly outward-looking either. We need this practice for our own spiritual life and relationship with God as we move toward more open-hearted compassion and a passion for justice. For compassion is a feeling deep within ourselves, a “quivering of the heart”; and it is also a way of acting – being affected by the suffering of others and moving on their behalf. And, this can’t happen with a “closed heart” or “hardened heart”, as it is sometimes described in the Bible. So, the spiritual practice of compassion is often likened to opening the heart.
But, first let’s talk about hearts. What is all of this talk about “the heart”? What do we mean? Most of us know that we aren’t just talking about the physical organ we call the heart. It is more metaphorical, like our modern, English-language notion of the heart being our inner source of feelings of love or courage (from the Latin word for “heart”). In the many times we encounter this word in the Bible, however, it is a metaphor for one’s inner self as a whole – our inner thoughts and feelings, our sense of our self and our soul. So when we engage in practices to open up our heart, it isn’t just to conjure up more loving feelings, it is to open up our very self to God and to God’s compassion and passion for justice. Marcus Borg addresses this pairing of the closed and open heart in his book, The Heart of Christianity, and I’ll be using some of his ideas throughout this sermon. In Borg, some of the ways to describe a closed heart include:
• turning away from God;
• lacking in gratitude, in which those successful in life feel self-made and entitled, and those for whom life has gone badly, feel bitter and cheated;
• living in exile – self-preoccupied, turned inward, and cut-off from the larger reality; and
• lacking in compassion.
And, why are hearts closed or hardened? For some it is the result of a chaotic childhood with abuse or radical instability, in which the self builds up layers of protection to defend against an unreliable and hurtful world. For most it is the natural result of the process of growing up. Self-awareness is born and developed with an increasing sense of being a separated self. We live within this separated self, as if the self is enclosed in a dome or transparent shell: the world is “out there” and I am “in here”. Closed hearts run a spectrum of hardness amongst people and at different times in each of our lives. In severe forms it is the basis of violence, brutality, arrogance, and rapacious world-devouring greed. In milder forms the violence is judgmentalism, the brutality is insensitivity, the arrogance is self-centeredness, and the rapacious greed is ordinary self-interest. But, even in the milder forms, we are still closed off from truly acting with compassion and justice.
So, what should we do? What can we do? In today’s Gospel reading of Luke, Jesus tells us to:
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them...But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return...Be merciful, just as God is merciful (or in some versions: be compassionate, just as God is compassionate).”
And, how do we do all that? We practice. And Jesus’ list here is a good and challenging list to practice. Practicing compassion works to open the heart. First, allow yourself to feel the suffering in the world, including your own. Don’t turn away from pain; move toward it with caring. Go into situations where people are hurting. We saw this practiced in amazing and life-saving ways by the many ordinary people who plunged into the situation and tragedy of the I-35W bridge collapse to help people who were hurt. Identify with your neighbors in their distress. Then expand the circle of your compassion to include other creatures, nature, and the rest of the world.
This practice of compassion increases our capacity to care. It reinforces charity, empathy, and sympathy. It leads us even beyond these feelings and responses to acts of justice. It is very good exercise for you heart muscle.
But, when we move toward others with compassion, we are likely to bump into some common attitudes, just waiting to close our hearts again. The usual suspects are judgmentalism and all its associated “isms”: racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, classism, and nationalism. An extreme manifestation of this is Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church planning to come to Minnesota to protest at funerals of those who died in the bridge collapse. They are the ones of “God hates Fags” infamy. In their news release they say that “God hates Minnesota, the ‘land of the sodomite damned’.” They believe that the bridge collapse was an act of God’s vengeance because “America, and Minnesota especially, have alienated God by it tolerance for homosexuality.” This is certainly enough to close my heart and to challenge Jesus’ call for me to love my enemies, even Phelps and his followers. For, on a personal level, our compassion is sabotaged by feelings of ill-will toward others, by spite and malice. These feelings and others, arising out of emotional wounds and personal pain, are actually symptoms indicating that you need to have compassion for yourself, and I for myself. Remember, Jesus also said, “Love your neighbor as yourself”, so you first have to love yourself. And, loving yourself means being gentle with yourself when you fail at this. And we will. Our hearts will close, but we must forgive ourselves and start again.
All of these challenges and personal feelings are opportunities to move from a closed heart to an open heart, to practice compassion and justice. Here are some daily cues and reminders to prompt us in this practice of compassion:
• Seeing someone in pain is my cue to practice compassion.
• My tears remind me of my compassionate link with all beings.
• Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, I vow to cultivate a boundless heart toward all beings. (This is based on the Buddha’s words in The Sutta Nipata).
• A prayer or mantra, based on Jesus’ words in Luke 6.36:
< Breath in: Be compassionate...
< Breath out: as God is compassionate.
Let’s try it…breathe in: be compassionate…breathe out: as God is compassionate.
• A practice of the Day: If you see a person on the evening news who moves you by their distress, just breathe it in and breathe out to him love and strength. Be compassionate...as God is compassionate.
• And practice this thought: Send love to a stranger you notice is in need.
And, to prompt us to practice justice:
• Taking money out of my wallet is my cue to practice justice.
• Whenever I see a poor person, I am reminded of the need for justice.
• Watching a street demonstration, I vow to wage my own fight for justice.
• A prayer or mantra, based on a chant on picket lines and marches:
< Breathe in: Justice Here...
< Breathe out: Justice Now.
Let’s try this…breathe in: justice here…breathe out: justice now
As individuals, and as a church and a community, we can practice by raising our consciousness about the affects of social systems on people’s lives and then acting on that awareness in ways appropriate to who we are. We practice by developing an empathy for the poor, by imagining and knowing the struggle and pain of living in poverty. We practice by meeting and befriending people suffering in our neighborhood, in our work with Families Moving Forward, at Simpson Shelter, and in the Taking Heart partnership, where some of our Muslim friends have experienced the ravages of oppression, war, and displacement. This practice can move us beyond acts of charity and service to a passion for justice, to
“changing society so that structures do not privilege some and cause suffering for others.”
• Practice by learning about and giving a higher percentage (up to 50%) of your donations to organizations committed to changing these social systems.
• Practice by voting;
• Practice by writing and petitioning elected leaders and representatives for change;
• Practice by changing habits of life and what you purchase; not necessarily all at once, but one doable change at a time – changes that support economic justice for others and the environmental integrity of our world.
Practice what the prophet Micah calls us to do:
“What does God require of you?
To do justice,
To love kindness,
To walk humbly with your God.”
Then, our hearts can be opened to God and to God’s passion for justice, and the words of Amos will be true:
“But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”