This sermon is the 5th and last in a series we have been working through on the book of James.
Phillip Yancy said, “All too often the church holds up a mirror reflecting back the society around it, rather than a window revealing a different way.” As we have been working our way through James, we have been looking in this mirror, and also out the window. In James we see the reflections of society, and we also see reflections of ourselves. As Pastor Ted has preached the last four weeks, I have seen myself in the mirror, and squirmed more than once. Perhaps some of you have as well as we have looked through the writings of James to examine how we live our everyday faith. But, as I have seen myself in the mirror, and in some cases seen ourselves as a church, there has also been a window showing the path to a different way of living and being as Christians in this world.
In the first four chapters of his letter, we heard James’ instructions to his disciples – they are to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. We thought about how we are to live our faith in our daily routine and relationships. James cautions us in how we think about our words – what we say and how we say it. We considered how we live our faith in our daily speech to and about others. Last week, we thought about complete submission to God, and how that shapes and molds our daily lives. Today, we will look at living our faith in our everyday lives, and how we live our faith through our compassion. But – before we reach compassion, there is something else to consider. Not only is our reading today a call for compassion, it is also a call for prayer. As Pastor Rick Morley describes the journey his congregation took with James, he writes, “One might say that the bulk of the Epistle of James is about how to BE, and that it’s much shorter on what to DO, but that isn’t true. What James does is link the two together…because of our faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, we put away anger, we listen, we care for the widow and orphan in distress, we act with gentleness, we treat poor and rich alike, we love our neighbor as ourselves. And then you get to the fifth chapter. Now that we have everything else under control…it’s time to pray.”
I’ll argue that we should probably pray before we get all of our stuff together, but his point continues – that not only do we pray, but we pray together. In today’s reading, we are called to be a people of prayer. To lift our prayers not only in times of joy, but also in times of sorrow and hardship. We are called to pray together – to gather the elders and bring the sick into the assembly. We pray together as a community – even when we are called to raise our prayers of confession and ask for forgiveness. Who we are, what we are to be and do, are bound together by prayer. And praying together, living together, being together and doing together takes compassion in our everyday living.
Compassion is the recognition of the suffering of others, then taking action to help stop that suffering. Fredrick Buechner describes it in these words: ‘Compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.’” Not only is compassion a recognition of the suffering of others, but it is a deep awareness of that suffering coupled with a strong desire to overcome it. Compare compassion to empathy: when we are empathetic, we can understand or relate to what someone else is feeling. Perhaps we know how they feel from our own similar experience, or we can imagine how we might feel in a similar situation. Empathy without compassion is possible, and sometimes appropriate. When we are empathetic, we “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” or feel with that person. Compassion, on the other hand is a higher level of response. When we are compassionate, not only do we feel the pain of another, but we want to change it or alleviate the cause of it in the first place.
On Wednesday night, I was in Fellowship Hall after supper, and heard my name being called from the kitchen. Standing in the drink line was a woman our office helped earlier in the day. She had been invited her back for supper, and she came – she came late, but she came. The food was in the process of being put away, but the group in the kitchen prepared a box for her and her son, and invited her to sit down at the table to eat. As I walked back to my office to make arrangements for further assistance, I asked the group in the kitchen cleaning up if we could make a few more boxes of leftovers to give to her so that they would have food for the next day. The individual who was working, who gave me permission to share this story, immediately offered to give her all the leftovers if she could use them. The woman is here with the fair that is over on Martin Luther King Drive, and said she could help feed the rest of the workers with it – they don’t get paid for their work until the end of the week. He got a cart, loaded the pans, and took them to her car for her. As I visited with the woman she shared a story of the death of her husband, the loss of her home, and the new start she and her son were trying to achieve. When I got home that night and had time to think about the events of the day, I thought about the group in the kitchen that so caringly served her. “When I was hungry you gave me food to eat, when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink.” They could not make all of her suffering end, but they could offer food and a drink. Our church, through the Deacon’s Fund gave her and her son a safe place to sleep (where she wasn’t afraid to get in the shower) and the ability to save some money so in the next town they have something to start with. In our kitchen on Wednesday, I saw our church at its best – offering compassion to someone who could not offer anything in return.
In James we see that for us to live everyday lives of compassion, we have a mutual responsibility to and for each other. James calls for us not to be alone when times are hard or scary, or even when they are joyful, but to seek out our community. James does a few things here when he writes that those who are suffering, sick, or cheerful should pray. He tells those who are in need of prayer to call for the elders to come and provide anointing with oil. When I hear “elders” I think in terms of the leaders of the church, as well as the entire church body. He encourages the community to come together to confess what sins they have committed and to pray for one another. In these verses of scripture we see that there is responsibility on both sides – those who give and those who need compassion.
One of the first things I was taught about visiting people in the hospital – after wash your hands entering and exiting every room — was to ask permission. It seems strange, but for the individuals who are in the hospital, especially if it is a crisis or for a long time, they do not get to make many decisions. If you have ever been in the hospital, you may know what I am talking about. You try to sleep and someone comes in wanting to run a test or take your blood. Medication is given at proscribed times – sometimes you may not be sure exactly what it is or is for, and so you just take whatever is in the plastic cup or watch it come in through an IV. You don’t get to decide what to wear either. You don’t have much of a choice about what you eat, or when, or if you can. There is not much you can make your own decisions about when you are hospitalized. So, when visitors have the opportunity to visit, they can empower the patients by asking permission. The patient has a choice about whether or not visitors are OK, or if visitors can sit, pray, or do anything. The act of asking permission gives them a way to be in charge of some aspect of their healing, to give them some responsibility for their own care.
James gives the responsibility of calling the elders on the patient. He gives them the ability to say “I need you. Come.” The elders then have a mutual responsibility to come. Those who are in need of prayer make the first step, and the rest of the community meet them and pray with them. The congregation stands in solidarity together. It was understood that if one member of the community was sick, the community as a whole suffers because of the illness. Thus, the afflicted should reach out to their neighbors and feel confident to ask for help from their friends and neighbors. The congregation’s leaders will pray on behalf of the ill, and they will be anointed with oil, no matter who they were.
It is interesting to note that when James was writing, oil was not the common pantry ingredient it is today. Oil was not available to the poorest of Christians – only the rich had it. The act of anointing with oil then, was an act of the entire community. The rich would offer their oil to be used for this blessing ritual for the sick. Those who are better off are subsidizing the healing of those who cannot afford it. Those who have the oil are showing compassion to those who need it most. There is mutuality at work here – it is the responsibility of those who are in need of prayer to ask for it, and it is the community’s role to respond with compassion and to pray.
James paints a picture of an idyllic community that stands together against hurt. I think he is also talking about how to see past what is right in front of our faces – how to get past first impressions and stereotypes and transgressions, and be in a deeper kind of community. For surely, we do not have all of our stuff together. We are not always able to say that we are kind, or slow to anger, or speaking in gentleness. Surely we let our tempers get the best of us sometimes. Perfect submission – completely giving ourselves over to God is easier said than done. And so we sin. It is a part of being human. And, each week, our community confesses our sins, out loud, in front of each other as part of our traditional worship service. There is a prayer of confession that we pray out loud, and then we have some time in silence to add our own stuff to the list. And we are forgiven, and we are healed. James liked healing. He says the prayers of faith will save the sick, and that after confession we will be healed. But, healing is different from curing. Curing is making the illness, the cause of the suffering go away completely — restoring us to the condition in which we were before. Healing is a different sort of thing. In my mind’s eye, healing symbolizes something that may not restore perfect wholeness. I look at the places on my body where I have had surgeries or injured myself – they have all healed, or are healing, nicely, but the signs of trauma remain. In my left ankle – the one I broke 4 years ago — there is still a metal plate and 5 screws. When I look closely, I still see the surgical scar, and it still swells sometimes. The break is healed, but the remnants of what happened will always be there, as part of my story. When we pray for medical healing, the prayer is not always one of “make it as if it never happened.” Prayers for healing can be prayers for acceptance of how life may change going forward. Prayers for healing may be for emotional healing if a cure is not God’s answer. Prayers for healing can ask God to close the wounds, stem the tide, and offer us a fresh start in whatever new reality we are in after an illness, accident, or emotional trauma.
We aren’t cured from sin. But we are healed – the marks of our decisions, good and bad remain. When we remember and recognize our forgiveness in Christ each week, we are restored. But we may do it again. The prayer James is asking us to pray is not one of curing, but one of healing – of restoration and remembering. We look in the mirror and see the traces of what we have done, or left undone. Having to say out loud what we have done is scary – what happens if I say it to the wrong person? Will they see past the dirt and grime of my life and pray for me? The speaker has to show vulnerability, and the listener has to respond. James says that the response much be one of compassion. The marks of our past (or present) are with all of us, internal and external; seeing past those marks in others requires us to live in ways that are different than the world expects us to live. Brooks Ramsey from the Pastoral care and Consulting Center in Memphis says this about compassion: “In the Hebrew language of the Old Testament the word for “compassion” comes from the root word, “womb.” The picture is of a birthing. Something new is being born. If I apply this in a human experience, it means that my compassionate acts always give the other person another chance. I do not hold past failures against them. I offer a “fresh start.” I want this for myself from others. Am I willing to give it to the other person? Such compassion will dramatically change the way we relate to each other.”
Think about this story – of a student nurse at the beginning of her career, learning to act with compassion: “Eileen was one of her first patients, a person who was totally helpless. ‘A cerebral aneurysm (broken blood vessels in the brain) had left her with no conscious control over her body,’. As near as the doctors could tell Eileen was totally unconscious, unable to feel pain and unaware of anything going on around her. It was the job of the hospital staff to turn her every hour to prevent bedsores and to feed her twice a day ‘what looked like a thin mush through a stomach tube.’ Caring for her was a thankless task. ‘When it’s this bad,’ an older student nurse told her, ‘you have to detach yourself emotionally from the whole situation…’ As a result, more and more she came to be treated as a thing, a vegetable…
“But the young student nurse decided that she could not treat this person like the others had treated her. She talked to Eileen, sang to her, encouraged her, and even brought her little gifts. One day when things were especially difficult and it would have been easy for the young nurse to take out her frustrations on the patient, she was especially kind. It was Thanksgiving Day and the nurse said to the patient, ‘I was in a cruddy mood this morning, Eileen, because it was supposed to be my day off. But now that I’m here, I’m glad. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss seeing you on Thanksgiving. Do you know this is Thanksgiving?’
“Just then the telephone rang, and as the nurse turned to answer it, she looked quickly back at Eileen. ‘Suddenly,’ she writes, Eileen was ‘looking at me… crying. Big damp circles stained her pillow, and she was shaking all over.
“That was the only human emotion that Eileen ever showed any of them, but it was enough to change the whole attitude of the hospital staff toward her. Not long afterward, Eileen died. The young nurse closes her story, saying, ‘I keep thinking about her… It occurred to me that I owe her an awful lot. Except for Eileen, I might never have known what it’s like to give my self to someone who can’t give back'” .
Give someone another chance. Offer a fresh start. Do not hold past failures against one another. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Living with compassion offers us a chance to do all of those things, and so much more. Often what is reflected back to us in the mirror of the world is that only some are deserving of compassion, and that only some are worthy of being prayed for or forgiven. Sometimes, we carry those messages about ourselves. “I won’t call the church and let them know I’m in the hospital – they don’t need to worry about me.” “This sin I have committed is too great – no one will ever forgive me.” Those messages reflect back at us from the mirror that Mosley spoke of at the beginning of our sermon. James has a different message for us. Come look out the window and see another way. This way, Christ’s way is different. This is the way that calls for us to show compassion to all we encounter, and to ourselves. To look past the initial reaction and see what is underneath. To find a way to bring ourselves to be in a place where we can not only understand the suffering of others, but to want to find a way to alleviate it. To show compassion to ourselves, as well as to others. Compassion extends beyond the sick, beyond the hospital patients to issues that impact all of our everyday lives. To live lives full of compassion requires us to do all of the other things James told us to do. We have to listen, we have to set aside our anger. We have to watch our words. And we have to submit to God and to Jesus Christ. By following the paths we see through the window, by living a different way, we open ourselves to understand, to want to change the suffering in this world, and to receive and to offer the healing presence of God. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Rev. Julie A. Jensen
FPC Cartersville, Cartersville, GA
September 30, 2012