Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Refugees Will Know We Are Christians by Our Compassion

(Image courtesy of Butler professor James McGrath)

In the days since the attacks in Paris, the conversation in the United States has taken a strange turn. Political leaders from Presidential Candidates, Governors, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and even a Tennessee State Legislator want to ban all refugees from Syria from entering the United States on the off chance that one of them might be a terrorist. (Our local official wants to do more than not let people in)

Others have weighed in on the process of vetting refugees, addressed the (still being investigated) rumor that one of the Paris attackers cross the border posing as a refugee, and compared leaders' responses to this crisis with their responses to mass shootings, so I won't rehash all that.

Instead I'll simply offer up a message I preached a few weeks back as part of a series at Christ called "They Will Know We Are Christians by Our ___". That week's theme was "Compassion".

I think it's particularly relevant in light of Rep. Ryan's statement- "we can't allow the terrorists to take advantage of our compassion", as if compassion is some kind of weakness. The word "compassion comes from the Latin compati, which literally means "to suffer with". My contention in the sermon is that compassion necessarily leads us to action because we allow the things that break God's heart break our heart. Failing to act is then, by definition, not "compassion".

You can listen to the audio on Christ UMC's site, or read the manuscript below. The primary biblical text is the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37.

(Quick note on the audio- after the scripture readers, the next thing you hear is one of our church members presenting a modern parable called "Information Please" that is part of the message. I come in at about 10:30 in the recording)

They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Compassion

A few weeks ago I came into the church office in the morning, grabbed my coffee, had a quiet few moments to center myself, and I opened my laptop to get started with the work day. At some point I opened up my Facebook page just to see what people were up to, and I saw a picture that I instantly knew I didn’t want to see. It was the image of a small child lying face down on a beach. I knew about the growing refugee crisis in Syria, and I guessed that it had something to do with that, but as I said, I instantly knew I didn’t want to see it, so I kept scrolling down so I could see a picture of someone’s dog or something else pleasant to focus on.

Over the next few days it seemed like everyone I followed on social media was reposting articles that contained this picture of the child lying face down on the beach, and every time I saw it, I clicked away as fast as I could. I don’t need to look at it. After all, I’m a pastor, I deal with depressing stuff every day, why go seek out more things that will bring me down. And this conflict is halfway around the world, there’s nothing I could actually do about it, so I avoided it.

After a few more days, this picture wasn’t going away and I was running out of excuses. Clicking a different web page is one thing, but when I’m watching the news and suddenly changing the channel to avoid it, something’s not right with this picture. So I took a deep breath, clicked on the article one of my friends had shared, and I promptly burst into tears.

The boy in the picture’s name was Aylan Kurdi. He was three years old. Aylan's father was trying to get his family away from the conflict in Syria to Turkey, so he bought a motorboat from a man who dishonestly claimed it was sea worthy, and by the time they found out it wasn’t it was too late. Aylan’s father, Abdullah Kurdi did everything he could to save his wife and two sons, but he was the only one who made it.

After a while when I had stopped crying and could think straight, I began to realize why I avoided looking at that picture, why I avoided hearing their story and learning their names. It wasn’t because I had more important things to focus on, and it wasn’t just because I feel like there’s nothing I can do. I didn’t want to look at this story because I don’t want to face that the only difference between three year old Aylan Kurdi and three year old Claire Kelley is what part of the world they were born into, which they did not choose. I didn’t want to face that the truth that, had our unchosen, unearned circumstances of birth been reversed, I would be the unwelcome, grief stricken refugee in a foreign country, and Abdullah Kurdi would be the guy sitting on the couch with his family griping that the pizza guy was taking too long to get to their house.

I didn’t want to know that family’s story, because deep down I knew that if I did, it would break my heart. I know these things break God’s heart, but while I spent a few days avoiding it and making excuses, I wasn’t practicing compassion. I felt bad, sure, it’s not that I didn’t care. But compassion is more than just seeing someone in pain, feeling bad for a moment, maybe offering up a quick prayer and moving on, glad that’s not me. For followers of Jesus, compassion happens when we let the things that break God’s heart break our heart, and our heartbreak moves us to act.

This morning we read about compassion in Luke’s gospel. Jesus tells a parable we’ve come to call the “Good Samaritan”. This is a complex story told in relatively few words. There are a lot of things Jesus doesn’t tell us, so we have to fill in the blanks, use our imaginations a bit if we want to understand what it’s really about. I think Jesus does that on purpose.

Here we have a guy, presumably a Judean like Jesus and all his people, traveling by himself along a dangerous road (not the smartest thing to do), when he gets mugged, beaten up, and left for dead. Then we see three other people- a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. We’re told that the first two guys see the injured man and cross over to the other side of the road, while the Samaritan saves the man’s life. That’s it. Pretty simple story. So we start to wonder, “Why did the first two men ignore one of their own, while a foreigner did something?” What made the difference?”

Well, we could decide that the priest and the Levite were just plain jerks who didn’t care about anybody but themselves. That’s possible, but it’s not a very interesting story if they’re one dimensional bad guys. We could reason that since the priest and the Levite have important religious roles, and since they’re going toward Jerusalem where the Temple is, that their chief concern is maintaining their ritual purity. If they go over to check on the guy and find out he’s dead, they become unclean and can’t serve the people who are counting on them, so it’s a theological issue. That’s also possible, but the rabbis who interpret the law make exceptions for acts of mercy, so that doesn’t really work, either.

We’re told that the priest and the Levite both see the man, and they cross over to the other side of the road. It may be that they see the man, feel bad for him, sure, they care. But what can they do? They might say a quick prayer and keep on going, glad it’s not them. We’re not told anything about what’s going on inside the priest or the Levite, but we do get a glimpse inside the Samaritan’s head. He sees the man and is moved with compassion. He doesn’t simply feel bad, he sees another human being who could have easily been him if he’d started his journey an hour earlier.

The Samaritan sees something that breaks God’s heart, and he lets it break his heart, and it moves him to act. Instead of saying “what can I do?” as an excuse, he asks, “what can I do? I can tend his wounds, I can get him to a safe place, and I can put his hospital bill on my credit card. I don’t know if it will make any difference, but if it was me there in that ditch I’d certainly want someone to try.” The Samaritan’s heartbreak moves him to act. He’s the hero of the story because he practices compassion.

Now the good news is that most of the opportunities you and I have every day to practice compassion aren’t quite that extreme. Jesus tells a story about a drastic situation so his point is very clear. And I shared about my experience avoiding the picture of Aylan Kurdi because that’s what has broken my heart recently. But most of the time it’s not so drastic or gut-wrenching. Our daily opportunities to practice compassion usually look more like the parable Mark shared with us, where the woman working the information line could have simply felt bad for the little boy, but decided there was nothing she could do. Instead, she saw something that broke God’s heart, and she let it break her heart just enough to see what she could do to make it better.

When we see how God’s heart breaks for someone without a home, we can pause long enough to buy a Contributor, look them in the eye, ask their name, and show them they matter. When we see God’s heart break over refugees on the other side of the world, we may not be able to do much, but we can donate money to UMCOR, and we can encourage our legislators to make space for more refugees. That’s what I did. When we see God’s heart breaking because someone we know is clearly having a rough day, we can stop for a few minutes to ask how they’re doing, to offer to pray with them, to let them know that they matter to us because they matter to God.

Whatever opportunities we may come across, big or small, may our eyes be open to see what breaks God’s heart. May we let God’s heartbreak become our heartbreak, and may it move us to act. For then they will know we are Christians by our compassion.

Amen? Amen.