On the Road: Living Letters of Compassion

October 22, 2017
Reverend David Shinn

Isaiah 49:8-13; 2 Corinthians 3:1-6; Luke 24:28-35

When was the last time you pondered your own vulnerability?

Perhaps, it was when you waited for the result of a cancer biopsy. Or while sitting in the waiting room while your loved one was in the operating room. Or the time when life threw you a curve ball with the loss of employment, broken promises, or betrayal. Or at a recent memorial service when you thought about your own mortality and dependence on God.

Being vulnerable just isn’t in our vocabulary or our consciousness. All of us struggle with the idea of embracing our vulnerability.

If we have a choice to be vulnerable or have the ability to control and dictate the desired result of any outcome, we would choose control. Yet the truth is none of us are ever in control. In those moments of vulnerability and lack of control, we may feel lost, frustrated, and even angry. From our scriptures today, we can see vulnerability in a new light. For in fact, it opens us up for much more. In naming and owning our vulnerability, it can lead to deeper compassion, creativity and joy.

We are standing at a new threshold in the life and ministry of Westminster Presbyterian Church. When this sanctuary was built, it was at the zenith of the western Protestant era. Our forbearers declared that the 20th century will be the Christian century. Tim reminded us in his September sermon that our architecture reflected that dominance and confidence with the stone construction. They were chosen to stand firm, strong, and perpetual. It is the opposite of being vulnerable. Now in this century, what we are building next door, as Tim explained to us, “is a sanctuary for the city that is physically accessible, and spiritually open.”

For the month of October, we are wading into the water for deeper wisdom, and strategy (see how I use these words) to ask the question: “Where does the church go from the 500th anniversary of the Reformation?” Sarah led us off with the motto of the reformation, “the church is reforming and always reforming.” Change is constant and the beginning. Then Brenan challenged us to say yes when the church has historically said no! Welcoming all means welcoming all!

Our leadoff batter, and our second batter were all strong, quick and have gotten us on the bases. I just hope the third batter doesn’t ground out or pop out. Or worst yet, cause a double play. Let’s hope he will advance the runners and set up for our clean-up batter next week!

As we wade deeper into Luke 24, we hear Jesus explaining the scriptures to the two disciples walking away from Jerusalem toward Emmaus. Jesus provides them the theological history and interpretation, “from Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” in v. 27. Their eyes have been kept from seeing Jesus. They were, perhaps, struggling with their vulnerability of losing control, and understanding. After all, they didn’t sign up for Jesus’ crucifixion and the surprise of Jesus’ resurrection.

They nevertheless followed the ancient code of hospitality: Offer shelter and food to all travelers who would otherwise be vulnerable to the elements and wild animals. The scripture tells us, “They urged him strongly” in v. 29. Being in touch with their own vulnerability led them to compassion and hospitality.

Then at the table, the stranger said the soon to be ancient tradition of the church, “he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” The ultimate act of vulnerability was when Jesus was broken and given as blessing to humanity. In that action, the bible tells us, “their eyes were opened” in v. 31.

The Lord’s Supper is an epitome of vulnerability and strength in our faith.

On one home communion visit to a senior living community, my sons accompanied me for the visit. They were 6 and 4 at the time. We met 3 homebound members at the large oval table in the open area. As I laid out the communion elements, the bread and juice from the Sunday morning worship, a gentleman walked by and asked, “May I join you?” Seeing one of the members recognized him, we said, “sure, come and have a seat.” Then as we were about to start, another person came by in her walker and asked, “Communion? I haven’t had communion in a while. May I join you?” In no time, we had over 10 people around the table. I started to panic, “Will I have enough bread and juice for this crowd?” Then my sons told me, “Dad, we are hungry.”

As we pass the bread and the cup, the communion table was not a Congregationist table, or a Presbyterian table, or a Lutheran table, or a Baptist table, it was the Lord’s Table. While holding our own distinct theological understanding of the Eucharist, we were all united as one body in Christ in this common feast.

Each of the adults broke their bread in half so the hapless father didn’t starve his sons.

I would like to invite us to open our hearts and ponder on our own vulnerability. When after a surgery or an accident, our normality may be suspended for a moment or duration of time. In those moments of disruption, losing control, or recognizing our loss, we come face to face with our vulnerability. What’s next can be a breakdown of our hearts and intellect. Or it can be a spiritual awakening for us.

Brené Brown, the author of “Daring Greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent and lead,” said in a TED talk, “When we fully embrace our vulnerability, it makes us beautiful…It is the willingness to breathe through the waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. The willingness to do something when there is no guarantee.” As for the disciples, our vulnerability can lead to our hearts burning and eyes opening!

Our scripture readings begin with Isaiah. The people of Israel had just suffered the most humiliating defeat in their history. Their beautiful city, the eternal Jerusalem was invaded, and their holy immovable temple was completely destroyed. With the elites of the kingdom carried away as future slaves for the Babylonian court, the hearts of those left behind and carried away were shattered.

Hebrew scripture scholars point to this era as the exile. It was their most vulnerable time. However, the most prolific, and creative theological writings came from their most vulnerable period. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel all had to reform their theological understanding of God. For Isaiah, God no longer resided in a box, or the Ark of the Covenant. Instead, God was so much larger than the physical temple. Only the corner of God’s robe filled the temple in his vision. Each prophet will go even further to expand their understanding of God’s power and grace. In their own way, the exile was their Reformation.

Isaiah tells the enslaved and down trodden people of Israel, God has answered you, God has helped you, God will keep you as the covenant people. They shall not hunger nor thirst, referencing to the Exodus saga, in their exile. God provided bread from heaven, water from rocks, and quail from the air for you. God set a table for you in the desert. God will once again “comfort God’s people and will have compassion on God’s suffering ones.”

In their most vulnerable state, their vulnerability was their greatest strength, their greatest comfort, and their greatest chance to give birth to deeper empathy and compassion.

Friends, none of us ever want to be vulnerable or dependent. Yet when we trust someone enough to name, to share, and to receive someone else’s love and support, it opens us up for deeper relationship with our community and with God.

In our 2 Corinthians passage, Paul reminds the Corinthians that their competence comes from God. Contrary to the popular sentiment of the Roman era, a person carries a letter noting his/her title, or office. Paul is telling the Corinthians: No longer will they need a person or institution to write a letter and list their accolades, their education, their title, their PhD, MD, JD or MDiv. They themselves can be the letter because God’s spirit and power is in them. God has written the new law not on stones, but on their hearts. Their hearts will lead them to be the ministers of the new covenant.

It is so easy to commend ourselves because we have the education, the title, the strong building that has been here 160 years. It is however much more difficult and rewarding when we own our vulnerability and dependence on God. Let us let God be God and lead us forward to create new and life changing ministries.

Responding to the recent closure of the two senior centers in downtown and uptown, a committee of the Congregational Care Council is diligently preparing a proposal for our Session for further discernment and approval. The proposal is to start a downtown senior community ministry here at our church. The senior centers had been the place for community, fellowship and learning for low income seniors. Recognizing the need of the displaced seniors and responding with compassion, they are dreaming ways for our new building to open its doors, and open its future for all, especially the vulnerable seniors to have a place at our table.

Opening our doors and opening our future lead us to open our hearts with compassion. At the recent men’s retreat, many of the men opened up their hearts to each other. Bearing their vulnerability to each other, our hearts were burning and eyes opening.

While sitting around the fire on Saturday night, the small group that remained there came up a new tag line or perhaps vision for us to consider. Our new tag will be “We will love the heck outta you!” Imagine that as our tag line. We have to do this quickly before Tim comes back.

During another home communion visit in Seattle, no kids this time, I visited Evelyn. Evelyn had been a widow for about 10 years at that time. Her husband was a retired preacher. They retired and moved to downtown, and joined the church soon afterward. Evelyn, despite her sunny disposition and ever so positive outlook on life, suffered from severe back pain. She only welcomed every 1 out of 3 or 4 invitations to visit. On this occasion, she asked for communion. I brought the bread and juice from the morning’s worship. We sat and talked about her husband’s years of ministry, and the impacts they made in people’s lives. Joy was a constant theme. The whole time, she spoke with a grimace on her face because the pain was so severe. When it was time for communion, as if something second nature kicked in, she closed her eyes, and prayed.

I said to her, “Evelyn, this is the body of Christ broken for you.” She reached for the bread and held it close to heart for a moment. As she took in the communion bread, I noticed something extraordinary. First, tears flowed out of her shut eyes. Then the frown on her forehead slowly disappeared. Finally, her tense shoulders relaxed. In its place, a peaceful and meditative presence filled her.

With her eye remained closed, I said to her, “Evelyn, this is the cup of Christ shed for you.” She took the cup, tiled it to her mouth and drank it.

We sat there in silence for a while, then she finally said, “Thanks be to God.”

I asked her, “Did you feel no pain when you took the communion?” She said, “The pain is always with me. Yet, so is the joy, the faith, and the love of God.”

Thanks indeed be to God whose compassion comes as the fresh dew every morning. Thanks to be God who makes us the living letter of Christ and God’s minister to our church and beyond. Thanks be to God for opening our eyes and recognize our need of God’s grace, and of our community. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer ~10:30 am Worship

Margaret McCray

Great and Loving God, what are we in all the majesty of your creation that you would be mindful of us?  Indeed, in all of creation you have made us in your image, given us minds of amazing capacity, granted us deep and discerning emotions, and given us bodies of grace and capability.  You have created this earthly orb of beauty and commanded us to cherish, nourish, and guard its abundance and fertility. From our birth and sealed in baptism we have been equipped and empowered to be your ambassadors, showing kindness and righteousness to all creation.

As we marvel in the brilliant colors of autumn, may they remind us of the beautiful varieties of skin color you give us, the various cultures, customs, and languages you have encouraged, and the many ways we name you, tell stories of you and worship you. All of this is your loving creation.  All of this you bid, even command us, to cherish, celebrate and preserve.

Yet we are torn apart by violence and hatred, disrespect, misunderstanding and ignorance.  Who are we to turn our backs, harden our hearts, ignore all the gifts and possibilities you gave us in making us in your image?  Who are we to ignore what you require of us:  to do justice, speak bravely, defend boldly; to love mercy, show forgiveness and kindness; and to walk humbly, modestly, and gratefully with you, our God. May your presence, carried in our bodies, words and actions, reach out to engage with the pain and suffering that is all around us.

Almighty and merciful God, we pray for energy, intelligence and commitment to restore your image within and among us.  The earth and all its inhabitants: humans, animals, plants and landscapes, cry out for community, health and peace.  Especially this morning, we take a moment of silent prayer to remember our brothers and sister in Cameroon to ask for peace and reconciliation between their French and English communities.  May they find the road to understanding, forgiveness and mutual regard.  Hear our prayers, O Lord…

Hear us as we pray for the millions of people on the planet suffering grief and pain, and the fear of gun violence, war, terrorism, corrupt or inept government, and the ravages of fire, wind and floods.

Empower and energize each one of us to do or say something every day that makes a difference to at least one of your suffering children, no matter the color of their skin, their language or religious tradition.  Help us be instruments of love, warmth and care for one another.  Give us the courage and imagination to be your vessels of compassion and justice.

We pray for those in our midst who are in special need of our attention and your loving care, O God.  May your presence give them hope and encouragement

With grateful hearts and deep intentions we pray they prayer you gave us. Our Father…

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