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God's Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers:

Empathy Today and It's Significance for Being the Best Neighbors With Those in Your Neighborhood--No Guarantee: a Reflection on Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In David W. Swanson’s, Rediscipling The White Church, he argues that the church in America is segregated. Although David Swanson is the pastor of an integrated church, he notes that the neighborhood is African American, he is not, but along with the leaders of the church, they are committed to discipling people in the way of Jesus. That way promotes racial equity, gender equality, socioeconomic parity. Swanson writes,

…white Christian leaders express a desire to address racial injustices—leaders whose homogeneous settings make them unsure how to do it...What matters most is not whether your ministry, neighborhood, or region is diverse, or “lily white.” What matters most is a commitment to Jesus’ command to make disciples, now reimagined to form white Christians away from segregation and into solidarity with the body of Christ.[1]

Many white Christians do not believe that racial inequity, gender inequality and socioeconomic disparity exist. Even at our most recent General Assembly (GA 224), the Presbyterian Church (USA) could not get enough votes to discuss a motion to speak, as a denomination, “that Black women and girls are disproportionately affected by the systems of white supremacy and misogynoir in communities, the church and society at large.”

The white church has difficulty addressing racial inequity, gender inequality and socioeconomic disparity. To thrive as a husband, parent, grandparent, friend and pastor, I must deal with my “whiteness.” John Ortberg, the pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, recalls this story about the significance of thriving:

FTT—my wife first introduced me to those initials. Nancy was a nurse when I first met her. There were many parts of nursing for which she did not care. But she loved diagnosis…of all the diagnoses, I ever heard her discuss, FTT is the one that sticks in my mind. Those initials would go on the chart of an infant who, often for unknown reasons, was unable to gain weight or grow.

Failure to thrive.

I didn’t know why it struck me as so unspeakably sad until I read Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines, a book that has affected me more than any book other than the Bible…Dallas writes that although we have tended to think of the word salvation as the forgiveness of sins or the escape from punishment, it actually has a much more robust meaning for the writers of Scripture: “the simple and wholly adequate word for salvation in the New Testament is ‘life.’ ‘I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly.’”

This is the human condition. FTT.

Thrive is a life word; a word full of shalom. Thriving is what life was intended to do, like a flower stubbornly pushing through a crack in the sidewalk. It is why we pause in wonder at a human being’s first step, or first word; and why we ought to wonder at every step, and every word. Thriving is what God saw when he made life and saw that it was good. “Thrive” was the first command: be fruitful, and multiply.[2]

Failure to thrive (FTT) is systemic to the human condition. It’s called sin.

All people are created in the image of God. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female. Yet, all do not appear to thrive. What I have been arguing the past four weeks in my sermons is that we must come to terms with our complicity in the problem. In what ways am I protecting my “whiteness,” gender and socioeconomic demographic and not affirming that all are one in God’s design? And, I am asking you to consider the same.

The texts in Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 assert that God promises to reconcile humanity and creation. We learn that God restores creation, including disenfranchised people. We discover that God does not demand poverty of everyone, but freedom from whatever hinders obedience. Being a sower of the good news of Jesus Christ, in word and deed, demonstrates to others and ourselves that we are participating in God’s mission. We are soil, seeds and sowers too. We co-labor with God.[3]

Listening connects to empathy. Empathy leads to actions of compassion. Compassion builds warm relationships. Followers of Jesus know that the power of God is a creating, redeeming and sustaining force for racial, gender and socioeconomic equity. Equity occurs when people begin to thrive. People thrive when in a transformational partnership with God and others. In this regard, Krin Van Tatenhove and Rob Mueller in Neighborhood Church write, “Partnership always transforms us, shaping our characters, our spirits, our actions…Scripture reveals that this truth is rooted in the partnership between God and humanity…When a church decides to partner with its neighborhood—allowing itself to listen and learn—the relationship has the potential to change both the congregation and the neighborhood.”[4] Geneva is placed in the midst of the Laguna Woods, Aliso Viejo, Laguna Hills and Lake Forest communities to listen, learn and partner with God and others to advance the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

We are the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing hope into despair, peace into discord, joy into sadness and love into hate. On this Sixth Sunday after Pentecost affirm that you are soil, seed, sower and a co-laborer with God, painting a new vision for life in a world that seems lost and hopeless. There is no guarantee what will happen along the way to God’s future. Engage real people with real needs in a real world in real life ways to end the disparities and inequities which exist between White and Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Be a co-laborer with God. Participate in God’s mission of reconciliation. Create opportunities for people to thrive.

[1]David W. Swanson, Rediscipling The White Church (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2020), 9-10. [2]John Ortberg, “Ministry and FTT” in, June 2008. [3]In this paragraph of textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Robert A. Ratcliff, Stephen Breck Reed, Mihee Kim-Kort and Nibs Stroup in Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, Luke A. Powery, Cynthia L. Rigby and Carolyn J. Sharp, editors, Connections, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 139-141, 142-143, 152-154 and 154-156. [4]Krin Van Tatenhove & Rob Mueller, Neighborhood Church (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 50-51.

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