A Sermon by Mary E. Johnson

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“Create in me a clean heart, O God. Make within me a right spirit.”
Isaiah 51:10

I was sitting in the front seat of the hearse. The funeral director was driving. We had just completed the memorial service and were headed to the cemetery to inter our tiny cargo on top of a great-grandparent. We were the first vehicle in the cortage. We followed the police escort. Behind us were several cars of loved ones and friends, gathered to offer comfort and support to the young couple who were about to bury their much-anticipated, much-loved child – lost to miscarriage.

As we made our way down the avenue we passed a small, Pentecostal church. It was white with black shutters. The window boxes had been planted with eye-catching flowers. The structure looked oddly Cape-Cod-ish for southern Minnesota.

There was a marquee in the front yard of the church. On the marquee was written “There are no rainbows without rain.” I read that message and I cringed. I thought – How trite. How saccharin. Somebody’s unfortunate attempt to explain away human suffering. And I hoped upon hope that the young couple in the car behind us had not seen that sign.

We arrived at the cemetery and drove to the ancestor’s gravesite. It had been prepared to received the tiny casket. As the mourners emerged from their cars and I was about to begin the burial service, the young parents approached me. “Chaplain,” she said. “Did you see the sign at that church – the one about rainbows?” The little voice in my head said, “Stay focused on her.” “Yes,” I replied. “I did see it.” “Oh,” she said. “Wasn’t that comforting? I just loved that sign. “ “Yes,” I said. “Very comforting.”

Isn’t it fascinating to consider how two people can look at the same sign and have two such disparate reactions? The young woman in this story loved the message on that sign. I found the message inadequate: rain and rainbows. If someone had offered me that message in the wake of a devastating loss I would have the impression that they couldn’t handle my grief, that they needed distance from my pain and suffering. The young woman felt none of these things. The promise of a rainbow as she and her family attempted to live life beyond their dashed dream of a healthy child – that promise touched her, moved her, comforted her.

One message. Two experiences.

Ephesians is the great Pauline letter about the church and deals, not so much with a congregation in the city of Ephesus as with the worldwide church and what is at the core of what it means to be Christian.
Paul spent the first three chapters of the letter, which includes today’s reading, discussing God’s creation of “a holy community.” The members of this community have been “called by God through the work of Christ.” Ephesians is about what it means to be church in the world today.

This reading from Ephesians is written to a group of people who didn’t all see things the same way. Professor Susan Hylen, New Testament scholar states that “The fact of human difference may no longer surprise us. What may surprise us in this passage is that the author stops to thank God for the foresight and grace to plan this messy human diversity.” This claim on diversity as the planned and grace-filled work of the God makes it sacred and an essential component of that “holy community” to which we are called.

According to Hylen the author was writing to two groups of people about living together in the midst of human difference: about living into diversity. And what does “living into diversity” actually mean – diversity of race, ethnicity, culture, educational background, geography, socioeconomic background, gender identity, age, sexual orientation, religion, political view, physical ability? It’s more than tolerating diversity, more than living with diversity. Living into diversity is about seeking diversity, valuing diversity, treasuring diversity. And today’s epistle suggests that living into diversity is at the core of the Christian life.

Our collective pandemic experience has certainly given us ample opportunity test our ability to live into diversity.

One virus. Many reactions.
One public health crisis. Many ideas of how to respond.
One approach to taming the virus. Many opinions about the intent and effectiveness of that approach.
One notion that we, as a relatively well-resourced, developed country, have some obligation to support and share with the rest of the world. Many philosophies about just what our global obligations are at present.

How best to bridge these divides in the context of the holy community?

Commentator for the New York Times and occasional homilist at The National Cathedral, David Brooks, recently published a column entitled, “The American Renaissance Has Begun,” in which he discusses the disruptive effect Covid-19 has had. Brooks sees the pandemic as a catalyst for a revival of sorts. He says, “But the biggest shifts may be mental.” Brooks continues. People have been reminded that life is short. For over a year many experienced daily routines that were slower paced, more rooted, more domestic. Millions (of Americans) seem ready to change their lives to be more in touch with their values.”

Has this been your experience as we continue our collective emergence – at least in this part of the world – from pandemic times? If so, what are the values with which you find yourself wanting to be more in touch?

If we are to gather any encouragement from today’s Letter to the Ephesians about being church in today’s world then one of our values is living into diversity – about living together fully in the midst of human differences.

But we all know there are barriers.

I think one of the most daunting barriers to truly living into diversity is fear – fear for lack of knowledge. You are different from me. I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you.

When I was involved in pastoral education in the hospital, training seminarians and chaplain trainees, we would ask candidates this question: Who are the people for whom you have the most difficulty feeling empathy? In other words, whose suffering are you incapable of recognizing for whatever reason?

Unfortunately, I have more than one response to that question. For example, from my years at the bedside I remember sometimes feeling frustrated and impatient with the controlling husbands of the gynecologic cancer patients in my pastoral care – women who were seriously ill and trying to cope with a new and life-changing diagnosis. Why weren’t these men more helpful? Why were they so controlling? Why did they need to gate-keep every person who entered the room? Why did they not want their wife/partner to talk about what was happening to her?

Shame on me. Over time I realized that these men were terrified. Their lives were turned upsidedown. They had received no preparation for what they were being asked to do. The culture expects them to protect their loved ones and they were trying to do just that in the face of the monster that is life-threatening illness. Over time I received a massive dose of humility and they became my teachers. Compassionate connections became possible.

Empathy is a foundational building block of community. It is the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives and to use that understanding to guide our actions.

In his work as an educator, Cambridge scholar and philosopher, Roman Krznaric identifies six habits of highly empathic people.
Cultivate curiosity in strangers.
Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities.
Try another person’s life.
Listen hard and open up.
Be a part of the inspiration for social change.
Develop an ambitious imagination.

Who are the people for whom you have the most difficulty feeling empathy and what can we take from our changing-but-not-yet-over pandemic experience as we strive to be church in the world today?

In his letter to the Ephesians Paul summons all nations, tribes, ethnicities and genders into communion, transcending that which separates us. Paul reminds us that we are meant to be in holy community.

Amen.

References:
Hylen, S., “Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14,” Working Preacher. July 12, 2015.
Brooks, D., “The American Renaissance Has Begun,” New York Times. June 17, 2021.
Krznaric, R., “The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People,” Mind and Body. Nov 27, 2012.

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