As we all know, this past week has been one in which many people have experienced the worst that life has to offer. In this day and age, with the type of technology that we have available, we can witness the devastation almost in real-time, and it is terrible to watch.
Homes flooded. Where families just two weeks ago gathered around the tables in their kitchens to have breakfast and a cup of coffee, just like any other day, before gathering up their backpacks and briefcases and heading off to work and school--those kitchens are now buried in mud and filled with water.
Retirement communities once filled with bingo games and tai chi classes and musical performances are now filled with people stranded and sitting in wheelchairs in the water that has filled their rooms, because they were unable to evacuate.
These and others have experienced some of the worst that life has to offer.
These events have an impact on us as well. Some of us have friends and family in the area... some who escaped harm but others who did not.
But even those of us who don't have direct connections to the area but witness the events through our smartphones and newspapers and televisions, we too are impacted... as we should be.
Perhaps one of the most powerful characteristics of our human nature is our empathy. When someone else hurts, we feel it too. People often confuse the words empathy and sympathy. Whereas sympathy means ‘feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune,’ empathy means ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.'
Empathy can be painful, because we ourselves feel the pain that another person is experiencing, even though we ourselves are not in the same situation as they. Because it is painful, we often suppress our empathy... it can become too much for us to handle, particularly when faced with repeated or intense episodes.
The ability to feel empathy is perhaps one of the highest virtues of humanity. It is part of who we are. It is in our nature. It is what makes us human. It is the reason that Jesus became incarnate, why he took on human flesh--so that he would know and experience what we experience--to feel our joys, to share in our pains, to suffer with us. The incarnation of Christ asserts the claim that the suffering of one person is always a part of the suffering that is common to the human experience. Therefore, the suffering of another person is necessarily our own suffering. Only through such recognition can we come to grasp what Martin Luther King so poetically termed our “inescapable network of mutuality,” in which “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
This is precisely what Albert Einstein explored in a beautiful letter of consolation he wrote to a grieving father named Robert S. Marcus, whose young son had just died of polio. Einstein was, of course, a brilliant mathematician and physicist, but he had a remarkably compassionate side when responding to letters that children wrote to him, and he had a remarkably philosophical and spiritual side to him when friends of his were experiencing grief. The letter he wrote to Robert Marcus was later included in the book, The Quantum and the Lotus.
"[A human being] experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
A similar concept is at the core of Christianity, and it is, to a large extent why the church exists. Jesus' call to love others as we love ourselves is not a sentimental idea. It is an extraordinary claim that "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” and that we it is our Christian calling to widen our circles of compassion and then to act on that compassion and relive the suffering of others.
This is, to a large extent, why the church exists, I believe, but I fear that the Christian church, to a large extent, has forgotten why the church exists. We might have different understandings of what it looks like to widen our circles of compassion and to relive the suffering of others. Some might say that this relief is eternal life and that the church must focus on the salvation of human souls—after all, Jesus did, after all, speak of the life that awaits in his father's house. Some might say that this relief is to be focused on the relief of physical suffering--after all, at the core of Jesus' ministry was the healing of the sick and giving sight to the blind. Many would say that this relief must come in both forms--the salvation for the life to come and the salvation from sufferings in this life.
Wherever one might fall in that spectrum, to the extent that one holds that belief, we would agree that the church exists to relieve suffering, and I do fear that the Christian church, to a large extent, has forgotten why we exist.
We do not exist to have large and well-attended programs. We do not exist to have beautiful and moving worship services. We do not exist to have the largest preschool or church staff in town. We exist simply to be agents through whom God changes lives and relieves suffering.
Now, while this can be stated simply, it is not simple to execute. This work does require that we have church staff, and programs and powerful worship services. But these all are not to be ends in and of themselves, they are to be the means to the end, they are all to help us achieve our purpose of being agents through whom God changes lives and relieves suffering.
All of the major stories of our faith make this claim: the deliverance from the flood, the giving of Promised Land, the return from exile, the incarnation of Christ, the resurrection to new life. But perhaps none of these stories has moved our reflections on this point more than the story of the Exodus, of which our Old Testament reading for today is a critical episode.
It is in this passage that we discover who God is. God says, "indeed I know the suffering of the people, and I have come to bring them deliverance." This is who God is. The God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of Jesus--this is who God is: God knows the suffering of the people and has come to bring deliverance.
If this is the God we worship, then this is the God we must emulate. If God is one who feels the suffering of the people, then we too must feel the suffering of others. It does not matter if they are neighbors or they live around the world. It does not matter they are Americans or Syrians are Afghanis. If God is one who feels the suffering of the people, then we too must feel the suffering of others. And if God is one who acts to bring deliverance, then we too must act to bring deliverance.
As Paul wrote the Romans let your love be genuine. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection. Contribute to the needs of the saints and extend hospitality to strangers. If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.
This is who we are called to be. This is why the church exists.
What this looks like in our everyday lives and what it looks like in what we do as a church ... This is the task before us. It is for us to decide.