Manuscript “Living Empathy”

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[Photo of me and Pastor Tim, one of my best friends and the one who keeps letting me preach at New Song.]

NOTE: I stayed on manuscript significantly less than usual with this sermon, so if you’re one of the three people who both reads and listens to this, you’ll notice a lot of discrepancy. I’m honestly not sure which is better this time.

This is the third sermon I wrote this week. I don’t mean I did three different drafts of this sermon or that I made major adjustments three times. I mean I wrote a sermon and decided, no, this isn’t it, so I wrote another, and thought, okay, that will work, then prayed some more and started over again. This felt a little like going back in time. When I was first regularly preaching, over twenty years ago now, about 1997, I would write a sermon early in the week, then panic on Friday that it wasn’t good enough, it wasn’t what God had in mind, and frantic, I would start all over, often writing it late into Saturday night. Sunday morning, God showed up, I preached, people responded, God worked through it. It was stressful. Years later, Kim said, very gently, “I wasn’t sure I could last if you were always going to do it like that.” 

Well, over time my process has changed a lot. My faith grew. My confidence in God grew. I learned how to trust God in the process and not get panicked by the voices telling me “this isn’t good enough!” I went from praying “Help me to say what you want to say” to “Help to to wantto say only what you want me to say.” Do you see the difference? Believe me, I did. One of the hardest things about preaching is the backlash you experience afterward, when Satan (the Devil) attacks with all the things you should have said, all the ways you failed. A lot of preachers don’t take Monday as their day off, even though that’s when they most need rest, because it’s too brutal to spend the day after trying to fight off those voices. But again, over time my faith grew, and I think the process John the Baptist described actually took place in me: I decreased and Jesus increased. I could discern between God’s voice and my Accuser’s and I didn’t fall for the lies as much. The biggest lie I stopped believing was that it all depended on my effort. In truth, we do our part, however well we can (or can’t), we try to be faithful, and then we trust God to do all the rest. Of course, that’s true of all of life following Jesus, not just preaching, right? If you’re sitting there thinking, “Oh, awesome, the preacher’s going to talk about preaching the whole time! I don’t preach!” I’ve come to believe that most everything about preaching applies to how we live our lives in front of others. St. Francis of Assisi is quoted as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” So all of us who follow Jesus preach, only a few of us are silly enough to stand up in front of people and use so many words. 

My favorite lesson about God’s work in my preaching actually came at New Song, and I wish I knew who it was who said it. After I preached here one Sunday, someone came up to me and said, “Oh, thank you so much! God really spoke to me when you said this.” Then she said something to me that I know full well I did not say in the sermon. It was profound. It just wasn’t mine. I use a manuscript when I preach and sometimes I go off the manuscript, but I knew I hadn’t said that. And I learned exactly how to respond when people affirm my preaching: “Thank you and praise God.” What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?

That brings us back to third sermon of the week. The first was a Part Two to waiting on God, but when I went back and looked at Celeste’s sermon, I realized she’d covered it so well I wasn’t adding anything. I have my own stories—I’ve never been pregnant—but it wasn’t Part Two, it was more like 1.2 (One Point 2). So that wasn’t it. Then I decided to preach on Empathy. But the passage I chose is very personal to me and I was trying to preach it without saying that. The multiple sermons had a certain nostalgia for me, but I didn’t lose my faith or, as Paul challenges the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” I am foolish in a lot of ways, but not that one. I was more starting with the flesh, my own effort, the second round and now, I pray, we’re ending with the Spirit. 

Matthew 7:7-12 7 “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 12 In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Here’s the thing about this passage: verses seven through eleven don’t obviously fit with verse twelve. Jesus talks about prayer, about asking God and how good God is in giving, then suddenly switches to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” How we treat others seems like a different topic than “ask, search, knock.” Many of the folks who later added chapters and verse numbers—Jesus didn’t speak those and the first manuscripts didn’t have them—decided to give it its own name, heading, and paragraph. What’s our name for this command? That’s “The Golden Rule.” Which is a funny name for arguably Jesus’ most fundamental command, when you think about what Jesus also says about money and wealth and possessions, right?

Here’smything about this passage: I didn’t believe it. When I first started preaching, I made a commitment to myself never to preach anything I don’t believe, and you think that’s obvious until you start preaching regularly while simultaneously living a messy, sinful, up and down life. Believe me, I’ve heard people preaching things I know they didn’t really believe themselves. 

When our son Isaac died, this passage became my reference point for my ruptured relationship with God. It was sort of my anti-touchstone.  “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Except I asked God to heal our son, to save his life and not let him die, and God didn’t. I asked God for what I could only see as a good thing and God gave me the worst thing. 

That was a long time ago now. In fact, I’m writing a book about the experience, which I’ve been thinking about doing for many years, but only now feel I can. The death of your child isn’t a wound that heals, it’s the loss of a limb. It doesn’t grow back; you learn to cope without it. 

So I’ve used this passage before in teachings for my example of how I wrestled with God, the way Celeste was describing last week. It’s a challenging passage for anyone following Jesus because Jesus makes these statements unconditional. Do you meananythingI ask will be given to me? Whatever I search for I will find? Every door will be opened to me? C.S. Lewis wrote a wonderful essay on this entitled, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem without an Answer.” Guess where he goes with that! Jesus gives two seemingly conflicting models of prayer: We pray “your Kingdom come, your will be done,” and this: “ask and it will be given to you.” I love C.S. Lewis and it’s the only place I’ve read where he concludes, “I have no answer!” We can pretend Jesus implies “Ask, and anything that is my will will be given to you.” That’s not what he says. As Lewis states, “…there is just a faint suggestion of mockery, of goods that look a little larger in the advertisement than they turn out to be. Not that we complain about any defect in the goods: it is the faintest suspicion of excess in the advertising that is disquieting. But at present I have got no further.” The end.

Does God mean ask for anything? The disconcerting fact remains that Jesus says exactly that. The disconcerting fact remains that the thing I asked for with my whole heart, that I’ve never before or since prayed for with as much of my heart as I begged God for this, God did not give. 

Now I want you to hold on to that uncertainty and tension. We’re going to look at verse twelve. 

“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” 

First, tell me what Jesus means when he say “for this is the law and the prophets.” Good. Somehow, this one commandment summarizes everything the Jewish Scriptures teach us. If those are your sacred texts that you’ve spent your life learning and seeking to obey, that could either be really offensive, to so minimize and simplify so much of God’s Word, or…maybe that’s the most profound statement you’ll ever hear.

It sounds simple, right? Just do to others as you would have them do to you. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Now think about this for a moment. What do you need to know to be able to obey this? Let’s unpack it.

What’s first? First, you have to pay attention to know what’s going on for others. Otherwise, how can we know what we should do toward them? We don’t get to ignore them and go about our business. Following Jesus can never be “I just need to keep myself clean and avoid sin and Jesus and me are good.” We have to know other people’s situations. We have to give them our attention. One of my pastors always said that love is spelled T-I-M-E.

What is second? Once you know what’s happening for the other person, the question becomes, “How will I do for them as I would have them do for me?” What question is implicit in that?

I think we must ask, “If I were in their situation, how would I want to be treated?” Does that make sense? It’s not simply, “How should I treat them?” Jesus says, “Treat them how you want to be treated, if…what?” If you were in their shoes. If you were in their situation how would you want them to treat you? Really, if your situations were reversed, how would you want them to act toward you.

Jesus says “If those were your problems, how would you want someone to help you? Now go do that.” That’s why the sermon is titled “Empathy.” Here’s a dictionary definition: “Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, that is, the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.” We can’t do to others as we would have them do to us unless we first have empathy for them. Do you see why? We have to understand or feel another’s experience first, in order to know how we would want to be treated if we were them. 

I’m going to go out on a limb right now and say that we must have empathy to follow Jesus. 

I trust we already get how important this commandment is, but here’s a crucial connection: Matthew 22: One of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” You see where I got the “arguably most fundamental commandment” idea. If the law and the prophets hang on this and “Do unto others” isthe law and the prophets, we’re talking about basically the same thing, aren’t we? How you treat others isthe law and the prophets and loving your neighbor as yourself hangs on how you treat others. Yeah, that makes sense. 

I know we’ve talked about this before here, but quick review. Jesus says, “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” But there aren’t only two commandments in Matthew 22:37-40, at least not for us: Love God and Love Your Neighbor as Yourself means 1)Love God, 2)Love Yourself, 3)Love Your Neighbor. If I try to love God but hate myself, my neighbor is bumming, right? So we’re learning to love God, we’re learning to love ourselves, and we’re learning to love our neighbor and Jesus says, “There. You have a summary of everything God has tried to convey to you. Do that.” 

Loving our neighbor as ourself actually applies directly to “do unto others.” “Do to others as you would have them do to you” implies that what you would have them do to youis actually a good thing. If I say, “I’ll do to others as I want them to do to me” but then I’m abusive to myself and lack all healthy boundaries and tell myself lies all the time, I can also get a skewed picture of how I want others to treat me. I need to be healthy enough and know God’s love for me to love my neighbor as myself—and truly love myself as Jesus loves me. If I’m going to do to others as I would have them do to me, I’m going to need to act lovingly toward myself. The assumption Jesus makes is “as you would have them do to you” is a positive thing. The measure for how I behave toward others needs to be “I want to be treated well, so I will treat you well.” 

Let’s draw this out for a second. Do to others as you have have them do to you. In the situation I find Kelsey, I should act toward her as I would have her act toward me if I were in Kelsey’s situation. I’m not asking, “What do I think is justicefor Kelsey?” I have to understand what Kelsey is experiencing, I have to place myself in Kelsey’s position, and then say “Okay, how would I want to be treated in her shoes?” Because the funny thing is, I can be quick to decide what justice would be for someone else, but I’m a lot less likely to call for justice on myself. For myself, I want grace. I really want grace. I know how bad I am and justice would not be pretty. I want grace. That means I’m asking, “What grace would I want Kelsey to show me?” That’s the grace I’m going to show Kelsey. 

Are you tracking with me? 

Jesus has asked—no, commanded—us to do something potentially really big but whether big or small, very other-focused. I have to 1)pay attention to the other person, 2)put myself in the other person’s position, 3) ask “how would I want someone to act toward me in this position?” Then 4)I have to switch back and dothat. I have to live empathyto do to others as I would have them do to me. 

The Sermon on the Mount is—ready for this?–a sermon. It’s a message, one long, cohesive, mind-blowing, gorgeous, heart-rending sermon. None of try to imitate it as a sermon because we don’t speak as one with authority, meaning we just speak Jesus’ words, we don’t speak as Jesus. We proclaim the Word, we aren’t, ourselves, The Living Word of God, as John 1 describes Jesus. 

The message of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5 through 7, is, according to Matthew 4:23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaimingthe good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Two verses later, Chapter 5 verse 1, we’re in it. This is the good news of the Kingdom of God. This is citizenship in the Kingdom of God. All this crazy stuff is how the Kingdom of God works and how we live and partner as members of God’s Kingdom. 

Citizens of God’s Kingdom, you and I, take Jesus at his word. I don’t mean we have perfect faith. I mean when Jesus says “ask,” we ask. We don’t always get what we ask for—I certainly don’t always get what I ask for. Do you? We don’t always get what we ask for. But we ask anyway. And through asking, we learn how to have faith in God. Through searching and knocking, we learn how to find and how God opens doors. I said to hold on to that tension about verses 7 through 11. I’m not solving it for us. I’m not solving for us the tension that Jesus commands us to ask—it’s an imperative, not a suggestion—and states “it will be given.” I don’t believe this is a problem to be solved, as if it were an equation and we just have to find x, either some implicit conditional that shows Jesus didn’t mean it or some faith requirement that explains away that it’s our fault God doesn’t answer. I think it’s supposed to be a tension.I haven’t always believed this. 

It’s much easier to claim we have answers than to accept we live with tensions. But to follow Jesus we always have these dynamic tensions, these “both…and’s” that we must hold together, not cancelling out one with the other, because to us it is a paradox. 

We read the Sermon on the Mount as an act of faith. We can’t always see the Kingdom of God coming. Some days it just looks like the world is going to hell. I mean that really literally. But we choose to live as members of this Kingdom. We ask and seek and knock and, as Celeste described last week, we wait on God actively, sometimes really loudly and determinedly.We don’t just take “no” answer for an answer because we believe Jesus-who-is-God when he says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

The very next words are 12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” Ask by faith. Believe God is good and gives us good things when we ask and wrestle through it when we experience the opposite. Sometimes that wrestling will be the hardest thing you do in your life. Then, in the same breath, by the same act of faith (that God gives us), do to others as you would have them do to you. We won’t do this perfectly, but we will absolutely try to do this and fail and find out how hard it is and pray harder for God to help us. Depending on grace is living with tension. We can’t solve that we’re imperfect sinners. We try and we fail and we trust God to act.

We’ll catch ourselves getting angry at people and wanting to do unto them what we decide they deserve instead of what we would have them do unto us.We’ll completely fail to have empathy, heck, we’ll completely forget that we were going to tryto have empathy. We’ll raise our voices or say mean things and half an hour or half a day later realize, “Wait, that isn’t what I would have had done unto me!” We’ll get a little frustrated with ourselves. 

But God will remain faithful to us. God will say, Keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. Really, I’m giving you good things. And—here’s the bombshell—I’m trying to give you good things by commanding you to do to others as you would have them do to you.Because the best thing Jesus can offer us is Himself, the best thing Jesus can do for us is to teach and empower us to become more like God, full of compassion and empathy and agapelove, unconditional love, the real thing. So Jesus reminds us that this is the law and the prophets, this is all of what God taught the people of Israel through the law and the prophets, all rolled up into one. This is not just a big deal, this is thedeal. 

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

What others, one or more, for you today? What others does Jesus mean, for you? 

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