Compassion and Justice Hold Hands

<Listen along here if you want to laugh with the bald jokes in real time…>

1 Corinthians 12:12-26

9e0efad832d6c5154d9cd05d9b725951For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?  If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many members, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this.  But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

Compassion and Justice Hold Hands

Holy God, There is a long list of threats around us:

terror, cancer, killing, families torn apart,

friendships torn apart.

We don’t know who and what to trust.



death –

the list goes on and we know it well.

And in the midst of threat of every kind,

you appear among us in your full power,

in your deep fidelity,in your amazing compassion.

You speak among us the one word that could matter:

“Do not fear.”

And we, in our several fearfulnesses, are jarred by your utterance.

On a good day, we know that your sovereign word is true.

So give us good days by your rule,

free enough to rejoice,

open enough to change,’

trusting enough to move out of new obedience,

grace enough to be forgiven and then to forgive.

We live by your word. Speak it to us through the night,

that we may have many good days through your gift. (adapted of Salvation Oracles by Walter Brueggemann in “Prayers for a Privileged People“)

That prayer is printed in its original text in your bulletin or at the back of the church.  It’s by the brave and robust Walter Brueggemann, a pastor to pastors for many of us.

I use it today because, in some ways, I’m out of words, so I need some other authors to do the talking. I’m going to be borrowing a bunch of words today.

Like, for instance, this little phrase that I stumbled upon by the bald and beautiful New Mexican monastic Richard Rohr: “Sin is when you treat people like objects.”

Think of all the ways this has happened recently. On the news.  In your life.

We will always find reasons to be suspicious of others.  We will always come up with reasons to disinvite people from the party. We will always come up with reasons to tell people, “I have no need of you…” like the Apostle says above.

We will always come up with excuses to treat some better and some worse.  Nero, the emperor during St. Paul’s day when he was writing this letter to the church at Corinth, had reasons for killing Christians.  They were dangerous, he said.  They disrupted the peace of the Roman Empire, he said.  They were thieves and caused problems and weren’t like other Romans, he said.

He had reasons.  We always have reasons.

But, St. Paul reminds that church in Corinth that they are to live differently than the way Nero is encouraging them to live.  Because the ear belongs to the body, even though it doesn’t look like any other part.  You cannot cut it off, no matter your reason.  And the same goes for the eye, the nose, the foot, the head.

Rhonda stubbed her pinky toe three weeks ago.  Think that has no purpose?!  Try walking without it.

Rowan Williams’, in this chapter on Faith and Society, says it like this, “The Christian gospel declares that there is nothing more Godlike and precious than a single human person.”

The church, when it’s at its best, points out the ways that the world commits the cardinal sin of treating people like objects, and calls the world to do and be better in response to that hard, honest truth.

The church, when it’s at its best, is a burr in the saddle of the world.  It is an apocalyptic pocket of people, pulling back the veil on the ways we use one another.  It demands the world work not with lies like “everyone is welcome”, but with honesty, like the honest truth that we too often don’t want to welcome people or care for one another in the way God asks.

It is only in working with honest truth that we can start “shifting what the world takes for granted,” as Rowan Williams says.

The right reverend of Riverside Church in New York City reminded me of this type of honesty on Monday as I was reading some of his material.  He wrote, “Honesty does not come painlessly: ‘The truth will make you free’ (as St. Paul says), but first it makes you miserable! That God is against the status quo is one of the hardest things to believe if you are a Christian who happens to profit by the status quo.”

And then he went on, “In fact, most of us don’t really believe it in our heart of hearts. We comfort ourselves with the thought that because our intentions are good (nobody gets up in the morning and says, ‘Whom can I oppress today?’), we do not have to examine the consequences of our actions.

As a matter of fact, many of us are even eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it…”

The church reminds a world where the status quo is to treat people like objects, that if we are to have justice in any situation, we must confront the causes of injustice, which requires that we have a deep kind of love for other people, a suffering kind of love, a love that enters into their situation, and that is what we call compassion.  Compassion and justice must hold hands.

Compassion alone eventually turns into pity, which does no good. And justice alone just becomes ruthless and has no heart.  They must hold hands.

We cannot break free from the status quo unless we first have a change of heart.  Once that happens, justice follows.  And how do we have a change of heart?

We fall in love with something or someone.

People ask me all the time how to change people’s minds about this issue or that.  Your arguments won’t do it, by the way, especially in a post-fact/post-truth world that we’re living in.  Reasons are often heartless, and often by design.

Instead, you change people by getting them to fall in love. And if we can’t fall in love with babies…well…

You know, to borrow some other words from your favorite cardigan wearing Christian, the church, when it’s at its best, reminds the world that the question isn’t the suspicious “Can you legally be my neighbor?” or the accusing “Are you my neighbor?”  But rather the invitational “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

You know, to borrow some other words, that Russian voice of resistance, Leo Tolstoy, once wrote that “A person understands his life in its true sense only when he feels God within him and sees God in every person.”

This is why when people tell me that prejudice is a societal problem, I also remind them that it is a spiritual problem: the inability, the refusal, to see God in the person across from you, especially the person who doesn’t look like you.  This is a spiritual malady.

This is why I struggle with the Tolerance bumper stickers. Because I refuse to settle for tolerance. I want to live in a world where we celebrate one another, not just tolerate the other.

Christianity preaches a Christ crucified, and Christ crucified didn’t call his followers to tolerate their neighbors, but to love them. To love them literally to death, because they would kill him for it in the end.

The church, Christianity, is supposed to call powers of this world to this above all else!  It is to call society, to call the powers to forget the reasons, and start loving. It is to remind the powers of the mystery of the person in front of them as being the ground zero of how we start to treat them, not the afterthought.  We must start in suffering with one another, demanding not that people defend their right to exist in order to stick around, but sticking around in the bleak parts of the world courageously defending everyone’s right to exist.

And, of course, the hard part about all of this is that this kind of radical love that the church professes works in all directions.  The person who you disagree with is also part of this mystery of God.  Self-righteousness is just as much a sin as prejudice, because it is the inability to see God in the person across from you, just sitting from the other side.

The church, when its at its best, reminds the us of this, too.

It is to call the powers to move past weak tolerance to a full-throated love. Because, as Dionne Warwick reminds us again and again, “What the world needs now, is love sweet love, it’s the only thing that there’s just, too little of.  What the world needs now, is love sweet love, and no not just for some, but for everyone…

And perhaps, in a sermon where I borrowed so many words from others, it’s best to let Dionne have the final words.  Wait, no.  Let’s give them to Jesus.  Because the church, when it’s at its best, is really just the body of Christ on earth, being Jesus’ presence over and over and over again.  In the midst of all the reasons we give not to love one another, the church says loudly:

“Love one another, as I have loved you.”




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