God’s Story, Your Story and Our Story Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers: Empathy Today
Dis-grace is strapped on the back of each one of us. Shame and guilt are major motivators and hindrances in human experience. Our true human identity, however, is determined by God. And it is good, freed from shame and guilt. It is by receiving God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor for us, that we begin to have hope that life can be lived from a different vantage point than shame and guilt. Hope keeps us wanting more and more grace, because it is through grace that we change and are transformed. And change happens when we experience empathy. Lee Eclov in his sermon Heaven tells the following story about being ready, because of grace, hope and empathy:
Robby Robins was an Air Force pilot during the first Iraq war. After his 300th mission, he was surprised to be given permission to immediately pull his crew together and fly his plane home. They flew across the ocean to Massachusetts and then had a long drive to western Pennsylvania. They drove all night, and when his buddies dropped him off at his driveway just after sun-up, there was a big banner across the garage—Welcome Home Dad! How did they know? No one had called, and the crew themselves hadn’t expected to leave so quickly. Robins relates, ‘When I walked into the house, the kids, about half dressed for school, screamed, ‘Daddy!’ Susan came running down the hall—she looked terrific—hair fixed, make-up on, and a crisp yellow dress. ‘How did you know?’ I asked. ‘I didn’t,’ she answered through tears of joy. ‘Once we knew the war was over, we knew you’d be home one of these days. We knew you’d try to surprise us, so we were ready every day.’
It is God’s grace that led and leads Gregory Boyle to love and walk with gang members in east Los Angeles. Father Boyle has empathy with and for the “homies” in east Los Angeles. Grace, God’s unmerited favor for you, me and all people creates hope. And it is when we have hope that things can be different…people’s lives can be different…and sin does not have to have its way that we begin to have empathy. Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…” It is through empathy that we experience hope.
This is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent anticipates the fulfillment of God’s promise to send the Messiah and portends the second coming of the Messiah as well. The First Sunday of Advent is about hope! Hope is experienced as we take seriously the person and purpose of Jesus Christ. Jesus has empathy for you and for me; for all people.
As I told you last week, I am a member of the Rotary Club of Mission Viejo. I have been a Rotarian since 2002. Our motto is “Service Above Self.” And we have The Four-Way Test to assist us with integrity and ethical standards. The Four-Way Test reads, “Of the things we think, say, or do: Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? And, will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? Empathy is required to be successful at The Four-Way Test.
The texts in Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14 and Matthew 24:36-44 call Christians to stand up and be counted. For Christians, the new heaven and earth is always being made. Isaiah 2:1-5 is the prophesy of a new kingdom of God and a new people of God who would seek after salvation, learn from the Lord, and walk in the Lord’s ways. This prophecy was for then, now and the future. God began the new kingdom with Abraham’s call and continued it through the judges, kings and prophets. And, the new kingdom will be fulfilled in the Messiah with the new heaven and new earth. Isaiah 2:5 reads, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” The hope of new life was then, now and yet to come.
Romans 13:11-14 speaks to Christians about presenting themselves as living sacrifices. Paul challenges Christians to see the sacrifice as living in harmony with others in community. Yes, pay what one owes the government. This is required. It is not a debt. The only debt we have is to others and that debt is to love them. Romans 13:13-14 reads, “…let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The hope of new life was then, now and yet to come.
Matthew 24:36-44 records that Jesus’ return is certain, but not predictable. Given this dilemma, Christians must be prepared for the Second Coming of Christ. The way we prepare, according to Matthew, is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and side with the marginalized. When we do this, we serve Jesus. We stand up for Jesus. Matthew is clear that being unprepared is known by excessive behavior to the contrary of the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. Humans obsess with what they want to know. Christians obsess on what they would like to know. There is a significant difference between “want to know” and “like to know.” Matthew 24:42 reads, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day the Lord is coming” The hope of new life was then, now and yet to come.
People who trust the God of the future and have hope in this God will never be complacent about the present or future. Why? Because Christians like to know how to be ready for Jesus now, tomorrow and when he returns in the twinkling of an eye. In Jesus Christ, all of life’s “issues” have been resolved. We need to receive God’s empathy and begin to relate to and with others through empathy. Gregory Boyle, the author of Tattoos on the Heart, writes, “God can get tiny, if we’re not careful…God would seem to be too occupied in being unable to take Her eyes off of us to spend any time raising an eyebrow in dis-approval. What’s true of Jesus is true for us, and so this voice breaks through the clouds and comes straight at us. ‘You are my Beloved, in whom I am wonderfully pleased.’ There is not much ‘tiny’ in that.” In order to move from our tiny view of God, we must expand the grace of hope by receiving God’s empathy (grace) and engage others with empathy (grace).
Having empathy for others is the action of loving others which inspires hope that sin will not have the last word. Thank God for God’s empathy toward you. Believe that God will fulfill all of God’s promises for you. Allow hope to move you to engage others in and with empathy so that they too can experience the fulfillment of God’s promises. Today is the day to lead and love with empathy. The time is now to stand up in empathy for “service above self” in our relationships and communities. Stand up and be counted! Have empathy! Be ready! Amen!
This definition of empathy is taken from the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
In all three sections of textual analysis, I have benefited from the thinking of Leanne Van Dyke, David A. Jones, Jin Young Choi, John M. Buchanan, Raj Nadella and Daniel L. Smith-Christopher in Connections, Year A, Volume 1 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019), 1-4, 4-5, 8-10, 10-11, 12-14 and 14-16.
Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York, New York: Free Press, 2010), 19-20.