Sermon: On Solidarity and Compassion

[Sermon preached on Sunday, July 16, 2017 (Proper 10 – Pentecost 6, Year A)  at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis, Minnesota]

And the Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’ 

Genesis 25:23

So, here we go again with the story of Abraham, this time featuring his son and daughter-in-law Isaac and Rebekah and grandsons Jacob and Esau. The lineage of this story matters to us because the promise of “blessing” and “greatness” that Abraham receives from God is a one that is carried in the literal DNA of Jesus Christ and lived out in the movement upon which Jesus innovates. Jesus’ example of “unequivocal love and obedience”[1] is a direct result of his saturation in Jewish faith and practice. As much as we might want to distance ourselves from the complicated, often deeply confusing, saga of Abraham, we simply cannot. Moreover, we cannot fully understand ourselves apart from the journey that he pioneered.

While it might appear foreign and deeply removed from our contemporary context, the Bible has a lot to say about living in the here and now. To be honest, beneath the complex layers of culture, geography, and time, our world is not all that much different from the world we see in Scripture. We still see the rise and fall of empires, though we currently just call them “nations” and “regimes”. We still witness plagues and wars, though we might just call them “epidemics” and “military interventions”. We still see the same gross incursions on human dignity decried by the prophets. We still struggle to hear the will of God with clarity and to act on it with courage. We still strive after an interior life of prayer to satisfy our souls’ deepest yearnings. We still wrestle with fundamental human ideals like compassion, justice, mercy, and what it means to be human in a highly complex world. We might want to resign the world of the Bible to some distant time “long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” but in reality it is closer than we want to admit.

The story of Jacob and Esau that we hear about in today’s reading from Genesis is one that is rooted in struggles we can identify with in our contemporary context. It’s a power struggle that is rooted in the presumption of privilege and the perception of scarcity. Now, before we overlay our contemporary ethics onto this story, it might be helpful to know that, in the ancient world, the privilege of the first-born son, and the blessing that came with it, were means of survival. The birthright was the double portion of the father’s estate that would pass to the eldest son. Along with that birthright came a blessing from the father. Upon the death of the father, the eldest son who had both the birthright and the blessing took his place as the head of the family, but along with that privilege came an ethical responsibility to care for the family. Keeping a majority share of the wealth in the hands of one person ensured that it would provide for the family for many generations. The birthright and blessing weren’t to hoarded; rather, they were to be shared with the community. Remember God’s promise to Abraham “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.[2]

In this struggle between these two brothers we can hear echoes of many of the struggles in our contemporary life. When the perception of scarcity and the presumption of privilege drive the massive acquisition of wealth and resources without the necessary ethical responsibilities that mandate care for the poor and vulnerable, we see a world running hot to acquire but running cold on compassion. When money matters more than people; when we live our lives with our own self-interest at the center; when we deny the connective tissue that binds us to one another across difference in joy and struggle, in prosperity and adversity, in good times and in bad we witness the wholesale disintegration of the beloved community of God.

Perhaps the solution to the dysfunction we see around us is found not in hoarding rooted in fear, but in giving grounded in compassion. Now, compassion is one of those words we love to throw around in Church. We know we should strive to be compassionate, but I am not quite sure we know what it means. Dr. Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, has a wonderful illustration of what it means to be compassionate. He roots it in our baptism which he suggests is deeply connected to the Incarnation – the event of cosmic solidarity where God directly infiltrated the human struggle. He asks,

‘Where might you expect to find the baptized?’ one answer is, ‘In the neighborhood of chaos’. It means you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy. Christians will be found in the neighborhood of Jesus – but Jesus is found in the neighborhood of human confusion and suffering, defenselessly alongside those in need. If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny.[3]

There is a lot there to unpack, but what I hear Dr. Williams saying is that to be baptized into the life and death of Jesus Christ is to not only to enter the ongoing story of God’s salvation enterprise, but it is also to become an agent in it. Don’t let the size of that font fool you – to be baptized is to enter the chaotic waters of God’s new creation. It is sopping-wet solidarity with every person whose life is one of suffering and chaos. And it is a direct commission to bear witness to Christ in the midst of it all.

Allow me to share with you a story: Eddie is a member of the Church of the Common Ground, a worshiping community of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta that supports and ministers with people who are experiencing homelessness and abject poverty. Eddie was also one of the first people who greeted me when I came on staff as a pastoral intern several years ago. He is a tall, African American man with salt-and-pepper hair (more salt than pepper), an infectious laugh, and an amazing singing voice. He is a Vietnam War vet and I’m not sure that Eddie was technically experiencing homeless himself when I first met him, but I am sure that if he did have a roof over his head, it wasn’t a very stable one. He and I would talk often and I was always struck by the depth of his faith in God in a situation that would cause many to lose it. And not to romanticize poverty in any way, but Eddie had a quality of faith that you can only have when your back is against the wall.

Even with all his personal struggles, Eddie was always at the church. He helped to set up chairs for our weekly Bible study or AA meetings. He provided administrative support like sorting mail for the dozens of folks without homes who used the church as their mailing address. He set up the weekly foot clinic and even helped to wash the feet of many folks who, because they had no home, spent countless hours just walking. He was at our weekly celebration of Holy Communion in the park quite often and even occasionally provided music. His favorite song was “Won’t it be grand? / Won’t it be grand? / Won’t it be grand? / Won’t it be grand? / I’m going home to live with Jesus. Won’t it be grand?”

Eddie knows something about what it meant to be compassionate, to serve the poor, vulnerable, and suffering even, and especially, though he himself was counted among them. He knows what it means to live in the neighborhood of chaos, both literally and figuratively, and to bear witness to Christ in the midst of it all. Eddie knows what it means to be blessed so that he could be a blessing and it has nothing to do with a wealth of material possessions. It has everything to do with a wealth of the human heart that has awakened to the reality that it has been touched by the abundant love of God.

O, the world we would see if we would learn from folks like Eddie.

Wouldn’t it be grand?


[1] Rowan Williams. Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014), 35.

[2] Genesis 12:2

[3] Williams, Being Christian, 4-5.

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