Compassion Grows–An Excerpt from Henri Nouwen https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUkZTR0pPLQ
Several years ago, I asked all invited speakers who preached at our anniversary to imagine this was their last sermon. It was based on an academic movement in universities to ask a professor to imagine giving his/her last lecture. After 13 years, this is my final sermon at MCC United Church of Christ. So here goes my attempt:
I am grateful to this church for many reasons. We have done great things over 13 years.
Let me start personally. I met my future husband Joe at Claremont School of Theology when I was invited to speak about Queer Theology. As we quietly dated, he came to Sunday service one week. And Larry Duplechan, during announcements, mischievously asked, “Are you not going tell us about your guest?” Larry had outed us, and I speak for myself, that it felt like my family had to give their stamp of approval. Joe grew into his ministry and finished his work at Claremont with two Masters. Our non-legal holy union was blessed in 2007 in this church by Rev. Troy Perry, and he legalized our marriage a year later with several others. That night of illegal wedding, I promised him that there would be a day that I would follow him. I have honored that commitment, and I follow him to Petaluma in a couple of days. Joe was ordained as a clergy here.
I am grateful to you for your faithfulness to Christ, and I take so many wonderful memories of all of you with me and those who have moved away or passed: Ray Therriault, Bob Cross, Roberta, Elinor, Dante, Gerry, Barbara, Joe, and Gregoir to name some. I grieved with you at their loss while we remembered and celebrated their lives. Their stories as well as your stories are woven with my own.
I am grateful to Venus and Emily for rescuing Friskie on the streets, after canvasing the neighborhood for the owner, but they slyly brought him to church after I lost my dog of sixteen years ago. I wouldn’t touch Friskie then because of my grief, but as I was talking with Roberta, Friskie jumped into my lap. And he became part of my family. And he loves to come to church.
But not all memories have been good. There were troubled times, drama, and pain directed at one another. I publicly apologize for my contributions to causing pain, whether rightly or wrongly. People left over disputes on using inclusive language, music, spouses, because I was male, Avatar, the service was too liturgical and not evangelical enough, the age of the congregation, and many other reasons.
But this church known for resisting change has changed over 13 years and achieved remarkable accomplishments. Let me share what stands out:
The greening of our church: We made the Earth a member of our congregation and embarked on a journey of living more sustainable with the Earth from solar panels, to retrofitting the campus to more efficient energy and water usage, the garden and the garden. The garden has been a gift to us all. We were named the first Creation Church of the UCC.
I am grateful to Michael and James who painted the mural for celebrating LGBT families and relationships on the wall. They started the process of jackhammering the asphalt to create an herb garden in front of the mural. But they unleashed the gardening passion of Gregoir who jackhammered more asphalt to create our garden.
We led the campaign to raise monies to place solar panels for Las Memorias AIDS Hospice in Tijuana. They have half of the needed solar panels, and we have freed up funds for people living with HIV.
I can remember the feeding programs, knitting scarfs for the women’s shelter and for the homeless, and knitting caps for the LGBT retirement at Triangle Square.
We produced and launched Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi: It became a missionary arm to tell the story of LGBT inclusion to numerous venues: churches, Edinburgh and Dublin Fringe Festival and off Broadway. The cast became an unchurched church speaking about radical inclusiveness of the Jesus/Joshua story. And he cast produced a documentary of their journey and faith—Playing with Redemption is now on Netflicks. They were a wonderful ministry outreach. But we have produced Godspel, The Man Who Killed Jesse James, and Vicki’s one woman play.
Paul Allison would not forgive me if I did not mention the acquisition of the pipe organ from MCC San Francisco when the building was condemned.
I remember Daddy Nick, who suffered a broken hip, and recovering in our living room for 8 months. Nick became a deacon, and then in gratitude he with a crew of folks renovated our kitchen.
This church has recognized my difference from the first time I interviewed when I identified as Buddhist Christian. You have welcomed all visitors with an extravagant hospitality in your midst– all who were non-Christians as fellow sojourners and companions on a variety of paths to discover the mystery of God called by many names.
As the denomination MCC has declined significantly, you struggled with myself about the future of the church whether we should dually affiliate with the United Church of Christ and after months of prayerful discernment chose to dually affiliate.
Of course, we know how to party and throw events: Out at the Circus with fire-spinners, jugglers, and high-wire acrobats and lots of fun; Our Night of Intercultural Music and Dance in our garden, concerts and plays, square dances and celebrations. We love to celebrate life. There is so much I can speak of our success, and I have so much gratitude for our work together.
Now, you have chosen an interim pastor, Rev. Pat Langlois. The board has taken a leadership role with confidence, and I believe that the best days of growth and service are ahead.
But I want to share some words of wisdom. There are a few words of wisdom that I learned over the decades and want to leave with you.
The first is that this church and all other churches need to follow the path of compassion. The video of Henri Nouwen’s words on Growing Compassion are pertinent, for they are expansion of Jesus, God’s prophet of compassion: “Be compassionate as Abba God is compassionate.” (Lk. 6:26) Jesus rightly connects compassion with Abba God, the source of compassion.
Jesus’ compassion is kindness towards a stranger that is unexpected. Compassion is linked to generosity, empathy, sympathy, and mercy. The life of Christ reflects for Christians the very essence of the meaning of compassion. Christ has also inspired Christians throughout history to found hospitals, care for the poor, feed the hungry, work in leper colonies, create schools for the children of the poor, fight for the vulnerable, and other such charitable acts. It is also Christ’s example that challenges Christians to forsake their own self-interested desires and act compassionately towards others, especially, but not exclusively, towards those in some type of distress or need.
Christ says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit because apart from me you can do nothing.” This is an organic metaphor used by Jesus in his farewell discourse to indicate the interconnections between us and the risen Christ. Our interconnectedness with Christ the Vine becomes the basis of Christian compassion and Christians living together in the world and with the world. As individuals and as a church, we needed to be rooted in God and Christ. When rooted in God’s compassion, we become a school of compassion, training others on Christ’s path of compassion. Grow in God’s compassion, and imitate Christ’s compassion.
Make compassion a part of your life, and you will turn things around in the world. If you treat others the way that you want them to treat you, it will be a more compassionate world. You do compassion acts, and you will make a difference by making this world a bit kinder and interrelated.
Henri Nouwen writes about Christ’s compassion:
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human (and all life: my corrective).
When we recognize our pain and suffering, we connect deeply with other people’s pain and suffering. One of the insights of both Jesus the Christ and Siddartha the Buddha is that everyone experiences suffering and pain. Compassion becomes a means for us to connect other people’s pain and suffering and find common ground.
Compassion tears down walls between us and other people. Jesus encouraged his disciples to follow the example of the Good Samaritan to reach out beyond people like us to those who are different, strangers, and enemies. When the Samaritan looked into the eyes of the man beaten on the road to Jericho, he recognized a common humanity—that could be “me.” The Good Samaritan did not confine his compassion to his people alone but to a Jewish stranger. Jesus asked his disciples not to confine compassion to their own people and friends, but to the stranger and even to an enemy.
Let me take a sideline to help contextualize a story from Karen Armstrong, religious scholar and compassion activist; When I was youth, I read the Iliad more than 20 times. At first, it was about ancient Greek myth and culture, but there was an intimate relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. I identified with that intimacy and did not name myself as gay.
One of my favorite authors Karen Armstrong in a speech promoting the Charter of Compassion, draws an example from Homer’s Iliad. Achilles has withdrawn his men from war against Troy. Unbeknownst to him, his intimate Patroclus dons Achilles’ armor. He engages in combat with Hector, the champion of Troy and is slain. When Achilles experiences the death of his intimate, he is enraged and grieved. He challenges Hector to combat and kills him. He strips Hector of his armor and ties his feet to his chariot and parades the mutilated body before the walls of the city to dishonor the corpse.
Achilles refuses to bury or turn the deceased body of the trojan prince for burial. In Greek religion, an unburied body damns the soul to endless loss and wandering. Hector’s father, King Priam disguises himself and makes his way through the Greek encampment to Achilles’ tent. He drops his disguises and pleads for the body of his son. Achilles looks into the eyes of his enemy King Priam weeping, and Priam asks him in tears to remember his own father. He recognizes a common bond of suffering, and the two men weep together. They recognized the divine in each other and share compassion for each other. Achilles tenderly lays the body of Hector into the feeble arms of Priam. This is compassion in action—a recognition of our common humanity.
Compassion in action, to me, is defined as the ability to step back from any personal differences I may have with another human being and see that person as they are at their core, as another child of God, and acting in accordance. It is the ability to look past the details of what creates the illusion of separation between myself and another child of God who is on an equal plane to me in the mind and eyes of God, and behave as if I cannot see that which may create division. It is seeing clearly through the eyes of love, letting love filter out conflict, letting love guide my actions. It is remembering that no matter what differences another person and I may have as individuals, that we are both are children of the same God. My faith calls me to display the same unconditional sense of love and care to that person that God shows me. Remember Christ’s words, “When you do this to the least, you do it to me. “
One of the great accomplishments of our church is the expansion to the Earth. Compassion is the language of the Earth and life, it is the grace of realizing our interrelatedness to everything. It is incarnational and risen Christ whose roots are deeply found in all life and all matter.
We are aware that our bodies are not limited to what lies within the boundaries of our skin. There is no phenomena on this planet that does not intimately concern us or involve us. Our ego-centered existence only separates us and distances us from the suffering of other humans, animal species, and the suffering of the planet.
We practice compassion to save our planet. we save the Earth for those who come after us. We protect the Earth because we are motivated by compassion and respect for all things, animate and inanimate. We respect and care for life, for we inter-exist as siblings before God.
Anyone feeling compassion sees no boundary between one’s self and others, we feel compelled to do something when a fellow creature of God is hurting and suffering–whether it is another species, a human, or the planet. Christ has helped to realize that all life suffers and that Christ suffers with us.
I end this reflection with a paraphrase of Teresa of Avila’s prayer:
God has no eyes in this world, but ours, to identify injustices, to see a better way, to locate and reach out to those in need;
God has no ears in this world, but ours, to hear the cries of those in need, to listen with love and compassion, to hear the need in another’s voice and minister to them;
God has no mouth in this world, but ours, to speak out for justice, to offer words of encouragement and support for those in need, to let others know how much they are loved;
God has no feet in this world, but ours, to walk the extra mile alongside others who need a friend, to travel to places to help those in need, to go and share God’s Love with those who are not aware of it;
God has no hands in this world, but ours, to heal the sick, to create sanctuaries for other life who have loss space, to carry those who cannot walk on their own, to hold someone in our arms when they need comforting; to recycle and create environments of sustainability, not waste;
God has no mind in this world, but ours, to seek and find ways to make our lives and those of others better, to create works of art and ways of sharing, to create a better world and to arrest the causes of global warming. God has no heart in this world, but ours, to feel and share love with all others and to love God’s creation—the Earth.