The Saints who participate in The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending some time in June and July contemplating what it means for us to go on to what’s next – after the storm of the Coronavirus dissipates. In so doing, we’ll look at some key decisions regarding our faith, family, finances, and fellowship – and how we can choose to engage in those areas differently than we did prior to the interruption that the virus imposed. On July 11, we considered the need for us to parlay our experiences – even those of pain – into the practice of empathy and the behavior of sympathy. Scripture references included Acts 28:1-10 and I John 4:7-12.
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In recent weeks we have spent this part of our worship together exploring portions of scripture that have given us insight into the ways that God’s people have endured storms of one kind or another throughout our history. In particular, we have looked at a number of Bible passages that relay something of the experience of the Babylonian Exile as described in the Psalms, Isaiah, or Jeremiah. This was a time when the children of Israel were compelled to travel to a place they’d rather have avoided; they had to stay there longer than they wished as they put up with diets, rules, limitations, and customs that presented them with great difficulty.
My thesis throughout this series has been that as the time of the Exile was drawing to a close those people were given the opportunity to begin to re-imagine themselves back at “home”. As they thought about what it would be like to return, they recognized that both they themselves and the place called “home” had changed dramatically during the storm of the Exile. I’ve tried to compare this journey of our forbearers in the hopes that as we begin to emerge from our encounter with the Coronavirus, we can process our own experiences of lockdown, grief and anger in ways that prepare us for what may come next.
In particular, we have talked about the ways that as the worst aspects of the virus appear to be lifting from many places in the US, including right here in Pittsburgh, we have the opportunity to respond to and reflect intentionally about who we are choosing to be in the days to come. We have discussed the importance of communal worship and the necessity to participate meaningfully in the Body of Christ. We pointed to the value of providing the children in our families and community with resources like mentors and intergenerational friendships as they seek to claim a faith that has authenticity for them. We have evaluated the ways that we use our financial resources to demonstrate God’s intentions for the world.
As we conclude this series of messages, I’d like to once again invite you to consider how the experiences of the past eighteen months have shaped and equipped you to respond to the world around you. Today, I’d like to challenge you to be among those who cultivate empathy in the world.
I’m prompted by some research indicating that children who experience some level of trauma tend to demonstrate a greater ability to understand the suffering of others. One author expressed it this way:
…people who have experienced adversity in life are more likely to demonstrate compassion and support to others who are suffering. People who have survived hard things are more willing to reach out and help others who are struggling… Surviving childhood trauma increases our ability to feel what others feel, and helps develop our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others.
I’ve seen this in many ways, and hope that you have, too. For instance, some years ago I received a guest in my home who had grown up knowing famine and hunger in Africa. He was so alarmed by the small size of our property here in Crafton Heights that he wondered how we could possibly feed ourselves… and so when he returned to Africa he mailed me a slingshot with a letter indicating that he had seen many squirrels and groundhogs in my garden, and surely I’d be able to harvest and use this meat to sustain my family. That is empathetic behavior!
Another example comes in the form of some youth group members who had lost their mother while they were in their teens. A few years later, these siblings led the entire youth group in a fundraiser to assist a family in the neighborhood, the mother of whom was battling cancer at the time.
There are at least two ways to experience empathy with another person. Many of us know the realities of affective empathy. That happens when you see another person undergoing some sort of a trauma and you feel it in your bones. Have you ever had a bodily reaction to the suffering of someone else? Maybe you are the survivor of some trauma, and when you notice someone else immersed in something similar, you are surprised to find yourself developing a pit in your stomach or waking up in a sweat. Affective empathy allows us to literally feelanother’s pain.
Others of us, however, are more likely to know cognitive empathy. This happens when we take the time to intellectually imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We may not exactly feel what they are feeling, but we can certainly understand that it must be difficult for them at this point in time.
This notion of empathy, whether it is affective or cognitive, can grow into the practice of sympathetic behavior. That is, our feelings for or about a situation experienced by another can lead us to a compassionate response – we understand the pain, and we want to do something about it. Sympathy leads us to the pursuit of justice, or feeding the hungry, or seeking to help survivors of abuse move toward healing.
Let’s look at the scripture. As we encounter Paul in this morning’s reading from Acts, he’s in the midst of a legal trial on charges of sedition and treason in the Roman Empire. He has been transferred from his cell in Jerusalem to one in Caesarea, where it was decided that he’d be shipped off to Rome for a final appeal.
As he’s sailing through the Mediterranean, the ship encounters a series of storms. This wasn’t the first time the Apostle had faced adversity. He had written earlier to his friends in Corinth that he’d been shipwrecked at least three times, and that his proclamation of the love and mercy of Jesus had resulted in his being beaten with rods three times, stoned and left for dead once, and given the punishment of forty lashes at least five times.
You might think that this kind of perpetual adversity and injustice would render Paul bitter, but it seems as though the opposite has occurred. Even while sailing through a storm on a prison ship en route to the trial that would result in his own death, Paul offers advice and encouragement to the sailors and his captors. Eventually, the ship runs aground on the island of Malta and all 276 people on board are able to swim to safety.
Did you hear what Paul did then? Paul, who had been arrested unjustly, and then tormented and threatened with death at the hands of his captors chooses to act with grace and generosity. He collects firewood and cares for others. In fact, when he hears about an illness in the home of the leading government official – the same government that is currently seeking Paul’s death – he prays for and brings about a healing in that home.
I am suggesting at this point that Paul learned a great deal from Jesus. In his life and teaching, Jesus was consistent: he always invited people to be better, kinder, and more humane. It wasn’t always well-received, but Jesus encouraged his followers to “turn the other cheek” and to pray for their enemies. In Paul’s actions, he demonstrated the theology of I John. Our calling, as Christ-followers, is to love. To build up. To reflect the purposes of Jesus into the lives of those around us. That’s what Paul was doing while tending the fire and caring for the sick on Malta, isn’t it?
Listen, Church: as we come into the summer of 2021 we need to hear, live, and act on this like never before. I’m not telling you anything new when I say that the dominant culture in which we are moving is not characterized by empathy or sympathy. In fact, it is precisely the opposite.
It has been 47 years since I preached my first sermon and this is the first time I’ve used this word from the pulpit, but it surely fits our time: we live in a culture that is increasingly marked by what the Germans call schadenfreude. That’s a compound word in German, made up of schaden, meaning “damage” or “harm”, andfreude, which means “joy”.
More and more, it seems, we are surrounded by examples of people who take great satisfaction in the suffering or pain of another. The philosopher Frederick Nietzsche once said, “To see others suffer does one good. This is a hard saying, but a mighty, human, all-too-human principle.” An example of this phenomenon comes from a study of German soccer matches in 2015 that found fans smiled more quickly and more broadly when their opponents failed to convert a penalty kick than they did when their own team succeeded at the task. Perhaps you’ve felt schadenfreude when you watched your snooty neighbors take their kids to an overpriced beach resort for two weeks and then came home to tell you that it rained… every single day. We see this phenomenon in the media when politicians stoke animosity and fear at the expense of a particular group.
This delight in the suffering of others is made possible when living, breathing, human beings who have been made in the image of God become dehumanized, debased, or objectified. Protestors become “rioters” or “thugs”. Police officers become “pigs”. Immigrants become “murderers who want to steal our jobs and ruin our country.” The spirit of animus that grips our culture is deadly, and it is up to us to do what we can to remove it.
To quote the noted theologian The Mandalorian, “This is not the way.”
As the body of Christ on earth, we are called to live in such a way that we honor all people. We are expected to become a blessing to others. The world, this neighborhood, and your street should be better off because this congregation exists and because you are here in worship this morning.
In recent weeks, we’ve talked about strengthening the bonds of community that exist; about committing to providing positive role models for the generations that follow ours; and to the necessity of living with generosity and hospitality. Those are the tasks of the church in the post-Covid era.
Paul had come through not one, but many storms. Yet in the midst of this one – and all of the others – he sought to serve even those who wished him pain and to offer love and kindness to strangers.
How could he do that?
Because he knew who he was. He knew whose he was. His life was in order and his priorities were established. Paul had a faith community that helped him to nurture his feelings of empathy into sympathetic and merciful behavior.
You and I are called into this place week in and week out, not so that we can learn all the rules of holiness; not so that we can polish our own halos and feel great about how special we are; and not so that we are overcome with guilt about all the ways that we’ve blown it; and no so that we are free to judge others about the ways that they may have blown it.
Rather, we are called into this set of relationships because it is here that we can practice faithful living. We can learn empathy and grow in sympathy to the end that the love of Jesus is more broadly felt and more deeply experienced on our block and in our world.
One practical example of this is a project that a small group of folks from CHUP are working on right now. For many years we’ve had a separate fund called “The Helping Hand Fund”. It has been used, on and off, for a number of years to help members and friends who are experiencing difficulty. Recently, the church received a generous donation that the elders designated to revitalize and re-envision that ministry. The goal is to develop a rotating fund that will allow those who experience need to get help and those who have more than enough to share.
We need to learn about discipleship and stewardship so that when we encounter those who are suffering through some kind of a storm we are prepared to care for them as Christ himself would. May we emerge from this struggle with the Coronavirus as a people more committed to being agents of Jesus in a world that is too often broken and crying out. Thanks be to God for the gifts we have received and the chance to pass them on. Amen.
 “Surviving Childhood Adversity Builds Empathy in Adults”, in Psychology Today 9/18/2020 (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/women-who-stray/202009/surviving-childhood-adversity-builds-empathy-in-adults)