“A Revolution of Compassion”
A sermon by parishioner, Peter Ulisse
In our Exodus reading this morning we hear mainly what amounts to the 10 Commandments, or what I liked to call them when I was in my 20’s – the 10 Strong Suggestions. You all know them – how we should not lie, cheat, commit adultery, or envy. One I used to slide over was the first one, about building strange gods before me. Why on earth would I adore a golden calf I wondered. But then as I grew older, as I witnessed man’s obsession with possessions and power, I started to change my mind and a few years ago I overheard someone say in another context, I just “adore” my cell phone, I depend on it for “everything”. And yet while that perception may unfortunately be true for many, I thought, do we really want a cell phone to be the center of everything?
This past year as Covid-19 ravaged our lives physically, emotionally, financially, and maybe even spiritually, it wasn’t cell phones people turned to, but rather to God for assistance. Suddenly everything we thought we knew became “uncertain”- we didn’t know whether we or our loved ones would get sick or even die, how to combat this virus, or whether we’d be able to keep our jobs. Panic was in the air as “Trust God” became one of our meditation mantras. And I thought back to my experience in Vietnam where death at any second was a constant threat. But now, as vaccines are becoming more prevalent and winter’s snow melts under Spring rain, we are aware that even after Covid we will still have to face those stones in our lives, under the snow, which have never really gone away, but were merely covered by the greater fear of a pandemic. The good news is God will still be there. And our other readings today speak to that by affirming that, even in times of adversity where we seem to have little control over our lives, we can still look to God to “revive the soul.” In the Psalm we hear that God is up there and “more desired than gold,” spreading love to all humanity without discrimination. Corinthians adds, “the wisdom of the world is not the same as the wisdom of God.”
The Gospel, the “good news” also shows us a loving and teaching God, but now apparently in a totally new way. Something is different. For all of a sudden God is not just “up there” but also “down here”, walking the Earth, incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ, the God/Man, Man/God. Here is a being as perfect as God (because he IS God) and yet not handing down commandments, but showing us, through parables and real life examples, how to live our lives in peace and justice and how to be happy both in this world and in the next. He shows how we can be compassionate in the face of frailty, forgive even as we have been offended.
So many beautiful words will be spoken, but in today’s particular Gospel we seem to have a problem. Yes, it’s the same Jesus who preached turning the other cheek and who will ultimately even forgive his tormentors as he was dying on the cross, but here we see him getting angry even to the point of committing an act of violence. We witness his coming into the temple, a place of worship, and seeing the buying and selling of goods, the sheep and cattle, the bargaining, and the money changers and he goes into an absolute rage. He makes a whip of cords, overthrows tables, and angrily shouts at everyone “stop making my father’s house a marketplace” or a den of thieves in other translations. What’s going on here? How can we reconcile this? Is Jesus losing his cool? Forgetting who he is? Isn’t he violating one of God’s own commandments? Is the Son disobeying the Father?
Well, I’m sure there are several theological explanations, but I’d like to offer you just two possible ones which struck me after meditating on this gospel. First, while he may still be God, I think it’s one of the clearest examples to us that Jesus is also fully human. This is consistent with other New Testament passages where he is pleased, gets upset, laughs, cries, is compassionate, and gets frustrated – just like us. And he suffers too – psychological pain in the Garden of Gethsemane, physical pain while being beaten and then nailed to the cross, and even the spiritual pain uttered in “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” to cite only a few examples. He’s also tempted to wrongdoing – with wealth in the wilderness, life while dying, and, who knows, maybe even by Mary Magdalene as suggested by a few, even as he ultimately will show us how to resist temptation.
So, if he is all human in his emotional life, why not anger too. Who in this room right now has not been angry? Maybe even enough to shout and scream, even at someone you love never mind an acquaintance, a fellow worker, or a stranger. Does this mean you’re a bad person? That you don’t love your neighbor or try to live the best life you can? Of course not. So why not Jesus, a perfect a human as possible, yet still human.
I also think there is a second point emphasized here – something about the very nature of anger itself and the complexity of our adult lives. Yes, anger can be devastating. It can end friendships, scar a child for life, and damage the most well intended acts of community. It’s why people often have to go into therapy and why we have Anger Management Programs.
But anger, like so many of the 10 Commandments (Strong Suggestions) can also be a bit ambiguous in our real life situations. What parent would “not” be upset if he discovers his child falling dangerously into the wrong crowd risking even the wrath of that child ? What friend would not help his buddy if he sees him slowly and unconsciously slipping into alcoholism – even at the risk of that friend denying or even attacking him? Would it truly be better to look the other way and not get involved? It certainly would be easier, but would it be more moral? Tough questions for a tough world but here again we have Jesus, the, God/man guiding us.
I think then what we’re also talking about here is the possibility of something which has come to be known as “righteous anger,” examples which exist in everyone’s lives. But why look elsewhere when we can cite one perfect example right here, right now in Christ Church. I am of course talking about the 4 young women who are leading the CCT Anti-Racism Alliance. Although I haven’t been in their company directly, I can only imagine some of the anger and frustration which has built up in them over time. No, not at moneychangers in a temple, but after being a witness to and becoming even more aware of hundreds of years of institutional racism in our country and how these policies have led to unfair treatment and literally ruined the physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial lives of millions due to no fault of their own. Just because of the superficial color of their skin whether black, yellow, brown, or red. How can one “not” be angry in the face of such injustice? Stay silent? Maybe one even gets upset enough to overturn tables, the tables of injustice which often preserve the rights and rustle the feathers of the privileged or powerful. By defending the downtrodden, the poor, and the disenfranchised while pointing out the hypocrisy of Pharisees didn’t Jesus do much of the same thing in his many parables and in the Beatitudes? How revolutionary. Yes, revolution, but not one armed with bullets and bombs, but with love as its core and compassion at its soul. A revolution of compassion which Jesus felt could change the world.
So ultimately I see a wonderful unity to today’s readings. Indeed, we have the Father who created the entire universe, who is “up there,” always available to us in time of need. The Son who literally walked this puny planet we call Earth and taught us how to live and worship, even how to be angry. And the Holy Spirit, who lives within us even in our most private moments, in good times and in bad, allowing us to see the ways of the Father and Son. And may this awareness stay with us as snow melts knowing we are never truly alone as we face those stones beneath. God is always with us. And, as we examine our consciences in Lent, let us also be cognizant that life isn’t really about us after all, our cravings and desires which end up with our only wanting more. But about compassion, loving our neighbors “as”ourselves so that, with God’s infinite help, we might finally be able to leap over those walls of self and see the world through another’s eyes.