An Interfaith Call to Compassion – Chuck Rush (1/7/18)

An Interfaith Plea for Compassion
January 7, 2018
Isaiah Matthew

File this under “Why I go to Church”. A few years ago, the religion scholar Karen Armstrong suggested that our world needed a Charter for Compassion. She thought all of the world’s religions should come together around the shared value of compassion as a central spiritual expression. This is a great idea that is so obvious that the forest is hidden among the trees.
At a minimum, we should realize how much we have in common like that. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all born against a backdrop of violence and warfare and the tribalism of an earlier era. It was small groups of local loyalty that usually exhibited “aggressive territorialism, desire for status, reflexive loyalty to the leader and the group, suspicion of outsiders, and a ruthless” competition for resources… Rape, pillage, destruction, slavery were the norm where might makes right. After centuries of this regularly recurring cycle, they were attuned to the spiritual danger of hatred, vengeance, unexamined prejudice, exclusion, suspicion, and greed.
They are the way of strife and “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword”, the moral of epic battle from the Iliad to “Game of Thrones” and “The Return of the Jedi”.
Judaism taught that the way of God, the polar opposite of cyclical violence is Shalom or “peace”. It isn’t just the cessation of overt conflict, it is the positive presence of justice and resonant harmony. And the spiritual opposite of hate filled objectification that is the precondition for violence is “compassion” or “Rahman” in Arabic. The root of that word is related to the womb. It is the symbiotic harmony and natural empathy that a mother feels for the baby that she is carrying where she would rather sacrifice her own life to save her baby than she would live.
Jesus once said that he came not simply to give us life but to teach us about “life abundant” and this is the way towards abundant living. It is through empathy and compassion, making a spiritual connection with others. It fills our lives with meaning and we humans are a meaning craving species.
One time a Roman approached Rabbi Hillel, the most famous Rabbi of his time, who lived about the same time as Jesus. He said he would convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could recite all the Torah (the first 5 books of the bible) on one leg.
The clever Rabbi said “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go study it.”
It is a clever saying. He not only gives a simple negative formulation of the Golden Rule, he says, “Go study it”. That means, use this maxim to interpret whatever story you are reading in the bible because this is the fundamental moral meaning.
Someone asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was and he responded, “Love the Lord your God with all your strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” But it wasn’t just what Jesus taught, he impressed the crowds by how he lived in relationship with other people. He went out of his way to transcend that egoistic” me and my tribe first” mentality spiritually defined by aggression and violence.
He lived compassion by healing those around him that were resigned to begging and suffering. He reached out to the “sinners”, prostitutes, lepers, epileptics (who were thought to be demon possessed in the ancient world), tax collectors (who were considered treasonous traitors by their people).
He encouraged his disciples to refrain from judgement, but to leave that to God, so to speak.
He taught us that we all will sit at the same banquet table with God, the powerful and the sick amongst us. He taught us that any time we do deeds of love and kindness, when we feed the hungry, when we visit people in prison or the hospital, you do it unto me. You do it unto God.
It is not about me, my people only, my paesans, it is about fulfilling others. Spiritually speaking, it helps if you can displace your own ego and so the most intimate followers of Jesus gave all of their possessions to the poor.
Jesus takes it a step further, to make the point in bold. He teaches us ”You have heard it said of old, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” but I say to you offer no resistance even to the wicked. If someone hits you on the right cheek, offer him your left. It is renouncing even our legitimate ego rights…. Further than most of us would be willing to go.
Because he says, “You have heard it said of old, you must love your neighbor but hate your enemy. And I say to you this: pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you. For in this way you will become the sons and daughters of God in heaven. For God makes the sun to shine on the good people and the bad people and god makes the rain fall on the honest and dishonest alike. If you love only those who love you (if you take care of only those that take care of you), so what? Even the Mob, even the gangs in the hood, do that much. No strive for perfection like God in heaven.
Transcend your egoistic needs, your tribal prejudice.
So St. Paul writes about the ultimate importance of love in our life together. It is not about me getting my needs met. It is about being connected in relationship, in compassion, in love. Paul says, “If I have the eloquence of great oratory and angelic singing, but I don’t manifest love in everything I do, I’m just a noisy gong, a clanging symbol. If I know all things, but have not love, it profits me not at all. If I am a great ascetic and give away all I have, but do not have love, it is a waste of time.” Faith hope and love. But the greatest of these, the most important of these is love.
And in the book of Acts that tells the story of the earliest church, right after Jesus died and was resurrected, they remembered them as a community of love. It says “Now they were united in heart and soul”… What a great line. Think about the times in your life when you were deeply filled with meaning. It was those times you were united ‘heart and soul’ with a good friend, falling in love, enduring tragedy with real neighbors and people.
And they have this lovely idyllic line, “The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared the proceed each with one another according to people’s needs.”
I’m sure it didn’t last long. But the point is this, when you are spiritually living in tune with God, what does it look like? People share with each other because they are united in heart and soul.
What a great vision!
“The basic message of the Koran is that it is wrong to build up a private fortune but good to share your wealth fairly to create a just and decent society where poor, vulnerable people are treated with respect. ‘Not one of you can be a believer’ Mohammed said in an oft quoted hadith, ‘unless he desires for his neighbor what he desires for himself.”
“The Koran calls us to replace ruthless competition with hilim (or Mercy). We are called to be forbearing, patient, and merciful; instead of venting wrath, merciful people remain calm in the midst of contention and they do not hit back when they suffer injury, leaving revenge to Allah. They look after the poor, the disadvantaged, the orphaned and the widow and share food, even when they do not have enough for themselves. They exude gentleness and respect towards other people. And in all circumstances, they reply “Salem salekum” Peace be with you.
Islam, the name of the religion, means “Surrender”. Because you are daily asked to surrender your ego to Allah, the compassionate, Allah, the merciful. And this is why Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer, a physical reminder that they are not the center of the universe.
And all Muslims are required to give away 2% of their income every year because all of us should act as graciously towards others as God has acted towards us.
The profundity of compassion in Islam is perhaps best embodied in the piety of the Haji that Muslims are to make to Mecca once in their life. It is, to my mind, the most profound pilgrimage in any spiritual tradition and you usually make it when you are in your late 50’s or early 60’s, when you are nearing retirement.
You have lived a career. You have collected, acquired, raised a family. And now you make a pilgrimage by yourself, surrounded by a million other people that have come from all over the world to do the same thing.
In the beginning, men bathe, shave their heads and their beards and they don a wrap, a simple white tunic that is the traditional shroud for your burial. And for the next several days, they fast during the day and make a series of spiritual treks, following a practice that millions of people have done every year for the past 1400 years.
And during the week, you have the sobering experience that you are simply one in millions and millions of people that have come before you and will live after you. It is that experience of context that gives you a deeper humility of your time and place on this earth, how fleeting our time is, and how important it is to fill it with spiritual substance.
Most people return from the haji changed people. They usually focus the rest of their lives on helping others in some way, in giving back. They become more aware and intentional about nurturing the spiritual dimension of their lives because they are aware that time is short and this is the most important part of our living.
I recognize that all of these three faiths also have exclusivist traditions that distinguish between the inner circle and the heretics that are out there, and I recognize that we don’t actually work in harmony with each other.
But it is interesting that as different as the dogma is between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all three of them are trying to produce quite similar character traits. All of them teach that because God is gracious and compassionate towards us, we reflect the divine spirit in the world when we are grateful, gracious and compassionate towards other people.
When I was a child, I was introduced to religion by people that taught me that religion was about the after-life. But the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve come to see the spiritual quest as trying to manifest compassion in this life, to connect with people that are right around us more deeply that we might actually live fuller lives of love because this is where the deeper meaning of our lives is to be found. It is intrinsically validating. You don’t have to wait for the afterlife.
Jesus said, I can not just that you might find life, but that you might find it abundantly. There is a deeper way of being that is right in front of us. We have to quiet the “self” that protects and feeds ego, so neurotically expressed by Donald Trump in his tweets of brag, vengeance towards anyone that has wronged him however slight, that constant neediness of affirmation.
But once we quiet the self, we discover a more fulfilling way of relating to others. We listen to others, allow them to influence us, become resonant and attuned with them. We love and are loved by others which produces gratitude and the deep peace that can transcend our nervous anxieties. It doesn’t make us perfect. It just makes us humane but as it turns out, that is enough. And that is all that God wants for us.
And that is why you get out of bed on Sunday and come here rather than just read the paper. You know and I know that we are a work in progress and we want to become humane before it is all said and done. We’d like to be loveable. We want to love.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, may God the compassionate bless you and keep you. May you become humane.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.