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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 In The Public Square--Believe That Showing Up Is Enough: a Reflection on Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Matthew 21:23-32

In desperate times, the Bible teaches people of faith to practice lament. Lament is “a passionate expression of grief and sorrow.”[1] Often, we describe those desperate times in our lives as “dark” times. Timothy George, Distinguished Professor of History and Doctrine at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University writes,

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, I learned preaching from Dr. Gardner Taylor, a pastor in New York City. I’ll never forget those lectures. I remember him telling us a story from when he was preaching in Louisiana during the Depression. Electricity was just coming into that part of the country, and he was out in a rural, black church that had just one little light bulb hanging down from the ceiling to light up the whole sanctuary. He was preaching away, and in the middle of his sermon, all of a sudden, the electricity went out. The building went pitch black, and Dr. Taylor didn’t know what to say, being a young preacher. He stumbled around until one of the elderly deacons sitting in the back of the church cried out, “Preach on, preacher! We can still see Jesus in the dark!” Sometimes that’s the only time we can see him—in the dark. And the good news of the gospel is that whether we can see him in the dark or not, he can see us in the dark.[2]

We must never forget our need for God. Shame derails our ability to cry out to God in grief and sorrow.

When we don’t claim shame, it claims us. The injustice caused by shame creates darkness or despair. With a desire not to have shame claim us, but we claim it, we continue the four-week series entitled “God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today and Its Significance for Being Best Neighbors in the Public Square.” The focus in this series is the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice and their impact on being best neighbors in the public square. Living the cardinal virtues is essential for building character rooted in empathy. Then, we can demonstrate conduct that exudes prudence (care and tenderness), temperance (love and belonging), fortitude (courage and strength) and justice (equity and impartiality) that deepens our relationship with God, others and self.

Today we examine the cardinal virtue, justice. Justice means equity and impartiality.[3] Justice is the moral principle that determines just conduct. When shame operates as a moral principle, equitable and impartial living is inhibited. In fact our words and deeds perpetuate injustice. Often, shame results from striving for perfection in all aspects of one’s life. In this regard, Brene Brown writes, “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, live perfectly, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”[4] My friends, when we are not claimed by shame, we realize that we are good enough because we show up each day to be loved by God, others and self as well as to love God, others and self. Then we can live in peace with and genuine respect for one another. Empathy demonstrates justice (equity and impartiality).

Being empathetic assists us to live justly, sharing peace and genuine respect in word and deed. Recall Ezekiel’s experience. Ezekiel is God’s voice to a people who believe life isn’t fair and that God is unfair. The people of God rationalized their sinful behavior as justified, because they believed God was unfair, not just, in doing good things for bad people. Ezekiel 18:29 reads, “Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?” Ezekiel was God’s voice confronting the injustice of the people in their understanding of God thus the injustices they committed in word and deed toward God, others, and self. Justice flips injustice on its head. Justice, when lived, demonstrates equity and impartiality in one’s words and deeds.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Matthew 21:23-32 confirm that life is not fair.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 asserts life’s unfairness does shape one’s present circumstances, but it does not determine our response.

Matthew 21:23-32 announces that Jesus’ authority is at odds with traditional authorities in respect to justice. The first example of this is a crowd listening to Jesus teach in the temple. The chief priests and elders, traditional authorities, questioned by what authority Jesus was doing healings and claiming that he was one with God. Jesus answered their question with a question. He asked the chief priests and elders from where did John the Baptist get his authority, heaven or human origin? The chief priests and elders after arguing about which answer to give said they didn’t know. Jesus follows that challenge to his authority with the parable of the two sons. The first son refused to obey his father, but changed his mind and did go to work in the vineyard and the second said he would go and work in the vineyard, but didn’t. Jesus asked the chief priests and elders which son did the will of the father. This time they did answer. They said the first son did the will of the father. Jesus then said that those who were despised by the chief priests and elders would go into heaven ahead of the chief priests and elders because they believed John the Baptist’s message whereas they didn’t. Justice overturned the injustice of traditional leadership’s exercise of authority.[5]

What’s our take-away. Often, we avoid answering Jesus’ questions because we want to believe the authority of human origin. Human authority is more often than not self-serving, as opposed to creating safety and well-being for the common good. Human authority often creates unjust systems to perpetuate self-interest not peace with and genuine respect for others.

Remember, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…”[6] When empathy is given with peace and genuine respect, justice is the outcome. Living justly claims shame and the brokenness it causes. In this regard, Brene Brown in The Gifts Of Imperfection writes, “…our imperfections are not inadequacies; they are reminders that we’re all in this together. Imperfectly, but together.”[7] To own God’s story of redemption, your story as a follower of Jesus and the story of our common humanity, is all about living justly, with equity and impartiality.

On this Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost rememberthat justice is required to create a society of individuals experiencing equity and impartiality.When confronted with difficult public square interactions around racial equity, immigration, health care and gender equality, claim the injustice of shame, give it to God and experience with God, others and self, peace and genuine respect. Listen well. Be empathetic. Demonstrate care and tenderness, love and belonging, courage and strength and equity and impartiality. Claim shame. Give peace and genuine respect to others. Show up to write God’s story of redemption, your story as a follower of Jesus and the story of our common humanity.

[1]The Concise Oxford Dictionary, Tenth Edition (New York City, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 796. [2]Taken from Timothy George’s sermon “Unseen Footprints,” PreachingToday Audio (Issue 290). [3]The definition of fortitude provided is adapted from Mirriam-Webster, and the Concise Oxford Dictionary. [4]Brene Brown, The Gifts Of Imperfection (Center City, Minnesota: Hazeldon Publishing, 2010), 57. [5]In the three paragraphs of textual analysis above, I have benefited from the thinking of Anathea E. Portier-Young, Pamela J. Scalise, Whitney Bodman and Shawnthea Monroe 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), 334-336, 336-339, 348-350 and 350-352. [6]This definition of empathy is taken from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. [7]Brene Brown, The Gifts Of Imperfection, 61.

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