Paula Northwood February 17, 2019
Scripture Galatians 6:1–10
When 21-year-old Michael Hill walked into the McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Ga., armed with an AK-47–style assault rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition and “nothing to live for,” he took as a hostage the school bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff.
Anchored by her deep spiritual life, Antoinette was able to see through the appearances of a “bad guy” and worries about her own survival to care for this young man. With encouraging words—which included “We can get through this sweetie” and “We all go through something in life” and “I love you”—she was able to get closer to him. She confessed to him that she had tried to commit suicide the year before when her husband left her. She did not judge the young man, rather empathized, and after some intense moments, Michael Hill gave up his weapon and surrendered.
Poised from a practice of prayer, forgiveness and self-awareness, Antoinette was able to speak from a place of vulnerability that expressed real support, turned hopelessness into possibility and convinced a young man with a mental illness to relinquish his weapon. She did so by showing compassion and care and using loving words; no violence was involved. She never even raised her voice.
In this sermon series on the Purposes of the Church, we have covered the purposes Within the church and now we look at the first purpose under the section Among: To care for one another.
We hope that we will never find ourselves in the situation of Antoinette Hill, where in a split second, you must decide how best to care for others and, in this case, risk your life for it. But in the church community, we have wonderful opportunities to practice care for other. I’ve titled this sermon: “Intensive Care for Souls.” I think that’s what faith communities strive to do and be. This is where it happens, in honest community and committed relationships. Love and care are learned in the encounters with the Other.
We know from the medical community that there are times when patients with severe or life-threatening illnesses and injuries require constant care and are moved to a special intensive care unit. During times of transition, a congregation may need to be reminded of the intensive care provided by God.
Maybe you’ve heard the saying “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” You may not know that this expression was originally coined in 1902 by Chicago journalist Finley Peter Dunne to describe the important role that newspapers play in society: “[newspapers] comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Even borrowed, it’s a good adage. With all the chaos, conflicts and afflictions of our world, maybe it is time for some comfort.
Rev. William Ellery Channing, Unitarian Minister and theologian, wrote: “The true purpose of religion is to grow a soul; it is to grow in the likeness to God. It is to cultivate our soul so that we are more like the divine.” Channing affirmed that within every one of us is everything that is holy and good. He believed that our qualities—the ability to think and to reason, the ability to see beauty and experience wonder, the ability to love and care for one another, the joy we find in being generous—these qualities are the qualities of the holy.
My friends, you are good and holy. I see the ways that you care for each other. The bedside visits, the phone calls, the food shared, the babies held, the children taught, the music made, the art created, the cards sent, the resources given, the tears dried and the hugs shared. I also see the way you care for others outside our community: the houses built, meals delivered, children tutored, meals served, tables wiped, coffee served, underwear purchased, household products given, all the 100 Hands projects, protests attended, advocacy work at the State Capitol and so much more. You care for your neighbors.
And how we relate to each other is how we care, and how we care for anything is a good indicator of how we care for everything. The whole Bible is filled with stories of relationship, revealing people who succeeded and failed in caring for the other. To care for the other is an important purpose of the church.
What I know for myself is that it is easy to care for people I love and even to show care for people I don’t really know. It’s more challenging to care for people I disagree with or have a conflict with or who annoy me. But what is going on when we lack care for the other? I have heard it said that Christians lack theological self-esteem. We doubt that the highest power in the universe can speak through our humanness.
There is an old Eastern legend which tells us that the gods became jealous of humanity, and they were fearful that the gift of divinity would be stolen by them, so they had a council. Some said, “Let us place our gift in the skies.” Others said, “No, they will search the skies; they will even fly.” And others said, “Let us put our gift of divinity in the depth of the ocean.” And the reply was, “No, they will plumb the depths of the ocean. Someday they will be on the floor of the seas and they will find the gift.” And the wisest of the gods said, “Let us hide divinity within them. That is the last place they will look.”
Often the last place we look for the gift of divinity, the last place we expect to find the highest and most healing powers of the creation, is within ourselves . . . within our ordinary human hearts beating in simple compassion, care, gentleness and love. Why do we find it hard to believe that within us resides some of the most precious powers of creation, powers capable of blessing, caring, healing and even saving other persons?
Walter Brueggemann calls it “the scandal of the particular.” It is not about becoming spiritual beings nearly as much as it is about becoming human beings. The biblical revelation says that we are already spiritual beings—we just don’t know it yet. The Bible tries to let you in on the secret by revealing God in the ordinary. That’s why so much of the Bible seems so mundane, practical, specific and, frankly, unspiritual! Most of us would rather read about the inspiring life of a savior, hero or heroine. But it is in the ordinary and every day that God invites us to care for one another.
Like the church from Galatia, we do not always get caring for the other right. We have the impression from this letter of the Apostle Paul that this church was struggling with caring for each other. They did not see it as spiritual work. Paul wrote “bear one another’s burdens, for this is the work of those who hold the divine within.” It was challenging to honor and respect others, particularly when they did not agree. It is hard to honor the worth and dignity of every person if we are unwilling to understand the other. This is what Antoinette did in the story I told earlier. In order to understand the young man, she made herself vulnerable. She shared her own pain while listening deeply to his.
Showing compassion and care is a relationship between equals—not healer and wounded; not one is better and the other less. Only when we admit our own need for compassion and care can we be effectively present to others in need. I urge you look at any great spiritual leaders: They took what they had learned from their personal struggles and led others to healing. If they had not reached out to care for others, they would not have completed their own healing. The same is true for us. If we remain stuck licking our own wounds, or if each side of a conflict remains self-congratulatory or indignant, we miss out on the care and healing that makes us whole.
There is another aspect of caring for the other that we must address. It is something that I have learned from Nonviolent Communication training. Sometimes the help or care we are offering is not what the other person needs. I can’t tell you the number of times I have said the wrong thing trying to be helpful. Or I have given a gift that was neither wanted nor needed. In my early days of being a grandmother, I gave gifts to my granddaughters that I liked, not considering whether they wanted them. Then I would feel disappointed when the gift was not used. Care to another must be offered in humility. Similar to the risk that giving a gift can unintentionally offend or create an obligation, we need to be careful of the expectations we put on the other. True care of the other tries to get to the real need of the receiver by asking, not assuming we know what they need.
In human history, so very little is really resolved or solved, settled or answered. We are always living in the in-between time, holding the tensions, discovering the paradoxes, realizing we try the best we can to care for each other in spite of our differences. Sometimes we become immobilized by the all the needs of others and hide in a place called apathy: To not care at all is painful in a different way. We are all hurting, and if we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter. Indeed, there are bitter people everywhere, inside and outside of the church.
As we go through life, the hurts, disappointments, betrayals, abandonments, the burden of our own brokenness piles up, but the church community can show you what to do with your pain. It shows us what to do with the absurd, the tragic, the nonsensical and the unjust. We transform it! We transform it by bearing each other’s burdens. We share forgiveness, love and care. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit pain to others.
Jesus knew which people were the best examples for his transformative message: He said, “I did not come for the healthy, but for the sick.” (Luke 5:32) We likely relate to both at some point in our lives. The good news is that we have a community to care for us when we are hurt or struggling. And when we are healthy, we tap into the source that chooses us, uses us, loves us and lives in us in order to care for others.
As Kathleen Norris wrote in the poem read earlier, “Answered Prayer”: “It was then I knew it had to be like prayer. We can’t ask for what we know we want: we have to ask to be led someplace we never dreamed of going.”
There are moments when it is not enough to reflect care; we have to embody care for all. There are moments when it is not enough to say we love others: We have to live it. We don’t always get it right, but when we do, despair becomes hope, hurt becomes transformative and care becomes the source of our action.
May it be so. Amen.