Today we’re continuing the summer series on courage, and you and I know. These days, courage is exactly what we need. In this season of transition, we’re wading into the waters of chaos because we know God is gonna trouble the water. We know this is where we’ll find creative possibility coming back to life…
A few Sundays ago, the people of Church of Peace began a conversation that will help us discern what the church is trying to do and what kind of pastoral leadership is needed. In the weeks to come, you can expect to hear more about the ideas that were hatched and collected. That was the really important work of the meeting, and it happened beautifully.
Our June meeting also brought to light the fact that —there’s some worry in the room. If you are feeling worried about how Church of Peace is changing or what’s coming in the future, you are not alone.
Some of this worry is grief. We remember how Church of Peace used to be in the fifties, or seventies, or nineties, or three years ago… We miss what the church used to be. We miss the people who used to sit in these pews. The grief is part of the worry.
There’s something else too. Bubbling under the surface, there’s the worry that goes: What if we don’t have enough children? What if the younger adults don’t have enough time to serve on committees? What if the older adults don’t have enough energy? What if we don’t have enough members to do all the things, or enough money to renovate the building, or enough air conditioning to get through the summer?
What if don’t have enough? Or worse… What if we aren’t enough? Maybe this is why we’re not growing. Maybe there’s something wrong with us! As a church, we might be feeling broken open, and poured out, and so deeply worried.
Whenever this worry begins swirling, there’s a corresponding impulse that goes: Let’s get in there and fix it! Quick! Let’s cook up a children’s program! Let’s patch up the places where the building is broken. Let’s scrape together everything we can find to prove we’ve still got it, to fix our deep worry.
Now you and I know. This urge to rush in and rescue the church comes from a place of love. But here’s the thing: If this rescue means putting everything back to how it was, I’m pretty sure you won’t be able to save the church. I’m absolutely sure, you don’t have to. It is not your job to save the church.
It is my job to tell you… There’s something more going on. The truth is, Church of Peace has a super power. It’s your empathy.
Empathy is the creative work of imagining how someone else might be feeling, then taking that seriously, even when it leads to action. The first thing I need to tell you is the work of empathy is the beating heart of this congregation. No kidding. The next thing is, right now, I don’t think there’s anything the world needs more.
In the story Ed just read, Jesus was having dinner with his disciples at the home of Simon the Leper in Bethany. Now it was just a few days before his arrest and execution, and already Jesus knew what was about to happen to him. Already you could feel, there was worry rising in the room.
After they had finished their meal, while they’re still sitting around, there was, what you’d have to call, an act of emergency performance art.
A woman came into the room, walked over to Jesus, and looked at him with love in her eyes. Standing behind him, this woman broke open an alabaster jar of expensive ointment, and why didn’t she just open it? Why did she break it?
This woman poured out the ointment on Jesus’s head while he was sitting at the table, and he didn’t even try to stop her! He could feel her fingers moving through his hair; he could smell the fragrance rising. Now she didn’t speak a single word. She didn’t have to.
In that moment, Jesus understood that she understood what was about to happen to him. And how did she know?
Everybody in the room was worried! This woman is the one who was worried about Jesus, and he felt that. He realized that she had given everything in order to anoint him — her compassion all broken open and poured out in front of everyone…
And oh my goodness —did that ever make the others furious! If we had been in the room, we might have been upset too. That perfume was insanely expensive! She could have sold it and used the money to help the poor! Who does she think she is anyway!
But you and I know. It’s not really the cost of the ointment. It’s not really about helping the poor. What’s so threatening is her empathy.
By charging right in with her own vulnerability on display, by expressing her affection so openly, we might feel embarrassed for her. We might feel exposed. Something in her empathy is triggering something in ours. Something in her compassion is unmasking our compassion, and nobody asked her to do that! By coming right in and anointing Jesus, she’s proving, we could do this too. And that’s scary.
It does make you wonder about her, doesn’t it? I mean, where did she get this idea to anoint Jesus for burial? Maybe there was someone she loved who got executed by the empire… Maybe there was someone in her life who got arrested, and sentenced to die, and she never got to say goodbye. Now she’s not going to let that happen again… We don’t know what she’s been through.
We do know. This is a woman who’s taking her own pain and translating it into an offering of mercy. This is the work of empathy.
And when you look at what is happening in the world right now, I can’t think of anything we need more. Our nation is divided. Whether we’re talking about Guns. Abortion. Transphobia. Climate change. Immigration. Policing… We can keep score on which side is winning and which side is losing, but if we’re actually going to find healing, that will require a different approach.
It might require a small group of people who are dedicated to the work of taking seriously someone else’s experience —even when this means remembering our own pain and imagining theirs —even when this means practicing the compassion that makes other people angry.
People in this room have lived through War. Depression. Trauma. Cancer. You have loved ones who are locked up. You have buried children. You know what it is to get broken open, to get poured out, and then to get up the next day. All I’m saying is there’s somebody out there who is desperate to learn that from you. There’s somebody out there who is longing to learn what this church knows.
A few years ago, I was visiting Lisa K at her home. I believe she was receiving hospice care. She was definitely in that thin place between living and dying, between heaven and earth. When I asked her about her favorite memories from church, she mentioned that her late husband, Gerhard, had composed a Christmas song for Church of Peace. She was missing him and remembering that song. Here she was lifting up a lovely memory we blessed to the LORD. And the thing is, that’s really where this could have ended.
But not here. Once word got back to the staff, Mary Kae managed to unearth a copy of Gerhard’s song. In what you’d have to call an act of emergency performance art, the choir got together after church. They threw together a rehearsal, then they recorded Gerhard’s song — I think you had to make a CD! The CD was delivered to Lisa, and in the weeks before she died, she got to hear her husband’s song again.
Now you tell me the world is not starving for this kindness —this impulse to imagine how someone else might be hurting, because we have been there too and we want to help. This empathy is so Church of Peace. This empathy is everything.
You do not have to worry about whether this church is enough.
You do not have to save this church; we already have a savior.
More than putting things back to the way it used to be, you have something critical to offer. You have everything to give.
A few days after the unnamed woman anointed Jesus, he was sitting at the table with his disciples after the Passover meal. He could still smell the fragrance in his hair. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the kindness in hers.
Right now, Jesus is trying to give something to his disciples so they will still feel close to him, no matter what’s about to go down. Now Jesus is at the table, and here do this, he tells us. It’s giving ourselves to be broken open, and poured out, and raised up again.
It’s what Jesus learned from the woman who blessed him. It’s what we can keep on learning from him. May it be so.