Pentecost 12 Proper 16
August 27, 2017
Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, Silver City, NM Rev. Sarah SJ Guck
LINK TO PDF VERSION (Good for saving or printing out)
Romans 12:1-8 (NRSV)
12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
I know that the usual expectation is that the sermon is focused around the gospel, but this week I am going to explore this letter to the Roman community from Paul.
Here he is writing to a community in Rome that is made of both Jews and Gentile Christians and had been going through some growing pains. There were many questions addressed by Paul throughout this letter, mostly based on questions of the law. For example, can a person be right with God by obeying the law? What should be learned from Abraham (the father of both Jews and Gentile Christians)? What role does the law play with sin? Should Christians observe the Old Testament food laws? All this suggests that there were tensions between the Jews and Gentiles. This letter is a lesson on how to live in community.
Paul writes “3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” and “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”
My translation: Do not let your false self, your ego, try to convince you of either of these untruths: you are better than others, or you have nothing to offer. Our community does not exist without you.
“6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”
So, ministers have gifts for ministering, teachers for teaching, exhorters have the gift of exhortation, the giver has the gift of generosity. The leader has the gift of diligence. Those make sense to me. So far, so good.
Then Paul says the compassionate have the gift of cheerfulness. There he lost me. Why does he link compassion and cheerfulness?
This really stumped me. My thinking is that we have been given a huge range of emotions, and none of them are wrong. (We must be mindful of what we DO with them, but the emotion itself is not wrong.) We have every right to be sad or angry or fearful or anything else when the situation warrants it. Emotional honesty is important! I read this compassion in cheerfulness thing and thought about when Job’s friends see his enormous suffering, they sit with him in the dirt for seven days. Mostly in silence. One of them slips with the “Dude, you must have done something wrong…”, but mostly it was in silence. They certainly weren’t being cheerful.
It may even be hurtful to be cheery when someone is suffering. We do have these “mirror neurons” in our brain that give us the tendency to feel what is expressed on another person’s face, and we know that one cheerful person can change the room, but I also know that there are times when cheerful is not appropriate.
I’ll tell you, I really struggled with this – “the compassionate, in cheerfulness”. It annoyed me.
Upon deeper reflection, I know that my annoyance stems from the fact that I pride myself in being compassionate, and I don’t think I am always cheerful in those moments. As a therapist, I hear stories of so much pain, so much fear, so much injustice, and I am not always cheerful while I am being compassionate.
Here is where my struggling landed me: I hear the stories, but I am not caught up in them. I don’t feel the pain, the fear and the anger of injustice. I have flashes of it, for which I am grateful, because it helps me connect to my patient, but in my compassion, I do not feel the same emotions as the person I am caring for. Because being compassionate means that it’s not all about me.
Compassion is more about “standing beside” a person. Compassion is not “getting caught up in” the person. Compassion has no expectations.
This is what I think Paul was getting at. I can stand beside a person, listen to them, hand them tissues, let them rant and rave, but if I am being compassionate I have no expectations about how they “should” be. I can be, even if not openly, cheerful, or light hearted, because I know that the same God who loves, protects and transforms me is the same God that will love, protect and transform that person.
This means that we can have compassion for people we don’t like. I can stand beside a person and know that the God of love who holds me close is also holding the person next to me close. I do not need to get caught up in their darkness, despair, hatred, or whatever else they are feeling. I can have hope, lightness of heart, and even – yes, you guessed it – cheer, because God is in charge, not me.
So can I go stand with cheer in the midst of a neo-Nazi rally? Probably not, but only because I get in my own way. I have expectations of how people should act. I would get angry, frustrated, fearful. With God’s grace (remember that Paul refers to “the gifts that differ according to the grace given to us”) I can listen to an anti-Semitic spew hatred and still have cheer, because the God that loves and transforms me, also loves and transforms the person next to me.
Imagine what we – our community – can do when we stand together in grace. We can prophecy, minister, teach, exhort, give, lead, and be compassionate. When I can’t do it, because I get in my own way and have expectations and forget that God is in charge, you can do it for me. Be compassionate, in cheerfulness.