The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
A few months ago, there was a writing prompt for a contest in The Christian Century, and it was to write on the topic of scars. And to be quite personal, I have a number of small scars across my abdomen from two laparoscopic surgeries related to my prostate cancer. They’re just little scars that you might not even notice…not the old type of postsurgical scar that shows a long, raised white line where a scalpel opened a patient up.
I thought about writing about those little scars…but I didn’t, at least until now. The scars themselves are small, but the wounds left behind are fairly major, and the impacts of cancer treatment have been life-changing.
Some wounds and ailments are quite visible to the casual observer: a missing limb or a pronounced limp or hacking cough might reveal an injury or illness. Those are tough, because they are right out in the open. People are likely to understand and be sympathetic about wounds they can see. But they also leave the onlooker wondering: What happened, or even what did they do to make that happen. One of the things I noticed when going through cancer treatment was my own awareness of the shame-and-blame game that some people do, especially around lung cancer: “Well, was he a smoker?” they ask. That is utterly beside the point, and makes it possible for the observer to feel judgment and pity, but not compassion. It also makes the observer feel safer about herself because she knows she isn’t a smoker…but it’s a false sense of security, since many lung cancers occur in people who have never smoked.
The English word, compassion, Jane Anne said in last week’s sermon, comes from Latin roots cum and passio — to suffer with. And that’s quite right. But the New Testament was written in Greek, and the word often translated as compassion is splagknidzthomai. (Can you imagine the Scrabble score for that in Greece for that word!? It’s 38…without double or triple squares.) Splagnon means intestines or guts, and splagknidzthomai literally means compassion that is gut-wrenching.
You and I can offer pity from afar…but compassion is a different story. You have to be involved in order for it to be gut-wrenching. And if you are aware, if you are moved, and if you have a conscience, you have to get involved. Maybe you’ll be able to remedy it, and maybe you won’t, but you can’t be like the priest in the Good Samaritan parable and walk on by on the other side of the road. You and I can’t fix racism on our own, but we can use the gut-wrenching image of George Floyd under a police officer’s knee and use the compassion we feel to spur us on in working on our own racism and to help others along the way. We can use compassion to drive action for change in policy. We can use gut-wrenching compassion in the voting booth this fall. Compassion is not wimpy…it implies — and sometimes requires — tough love.
Unless he had an iron spike protruding from his spine, I imagine that the man suffering from paralysis in today’s text had a paralysis caused by something that was not visible to the naked eye, whether it was a nerve impacted by a broken bone or a disease that robbed him of his ability to walk. We aren’t told, but we do get the idea of Jesus’ tough love when he says to the man, “stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” The invisible wound was healed.
I’m going to hazard a guess that every person hearing this sermon bears scars and has some kind of an unseen wound. Maybe it’s a physical ailment that really affects your health. Nobody sees high blood pressure, but they know when you’ve had a stroke. No one can tell is you have diabetes, but they see signs if your blood sugar drops. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
And spiritual wounds are almost never visible. I can’t tell you how many LGBTQ people have been damaged by the church’s homophobia, but they are legion. Even if churches like ours offer a warm welcome to non-straight folks, we are a tiny minority among the global whole. Women, too, have been terribly marginalized and wounded by misogyny in the church. And we self-inflict spiritual wounds as well. We sometimes create our own tethers of shame and sin that keep us from experiencing the abundant life Jesus came to offer.
Many of us are in need of healing of unseen psychological ailments, whether depression, anxiety, or another disorder. About 7% of Americans experience a major depressive episode each year. That translates to about 50 people in our congregation.
On Friday, I got a call from one of our members whose 50-something son had taken his own life, and yesterday afternoon, I got another message about one of Jane Anne’s former parishioners in Denver, a young man in his 30s, who had died by suicide. As most of you know, Jane Anne’s son, Colin, took his own life two and a half years ago, so this hits hard and close to home for both of us. People left in the wake of a suicide often ask why they didn’t see the warning signs (especially people like me, who are trained to see warning signs). But the truth of it is that those who choose suicide often have deep unseen wounds.
We need to remove the stigma around mental illness…help is available, and keeping it in the shadows only makes it less likely that folks who suffer will get the help they need. Please reach out for help. Carla, Jane Anne, and I have a good referral list for therapists here in Fort Collins.
So, what is the unseen wound that is affecting you right now? That’s a hard question that you probably weren’t anticipating this morning. But, I ask that you take a moment to think about the physical, psychological, or spiritual wounds — especially the unseen wounds — that are affecting you and keeping you from living life in its fullness? I’m going to pause so that we can contemplate that in a moment of silence. [pause]
I know that my first image of healing was a really creepy televangelist, who would do “faith healings” on stage on his TV show. I remember him sticking his fingers into the ears of a person with a profound hearing impairment and yell, “Deaf spirits out!” For me, that taints the idea of healing.
Healing doesn’t necessarily mean curing. It can mean helping, acceptance, openness, forgiveness, seeking transformation. We yearn for the wholeness of body, mind, and spirit, even as we understand that no one is claiming to restore lost limbs or grow new organs in the people who are afflicted.
I have a profound belief in the efficacy of prayer…not that it works like a vending machine: insert a quarter, pull the lever, and out comes whatever you wish. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, said, “The purpose of prayer is not to change God; it changes those who pray.” So, if you want to start changing, you can start by praying.
My own belief in healing prayer is not that it will result in curing, but that it may help us toward healing through accepting a terminal diagnosis (we all have one…), learning to live with a disability, getting help with mental illness or mood disorder, learning to forgive someone who has injured you deeply, learning to let go of shame, and learning to embrace with gratitude the abundance of blessings God offers you.
So, I invite you to think back a bit to that unseen wound that is affecting you right now. And if you wish, I invite you to focus on it for just a moment, and I’ll offer a prayer of healing.
Jesus the healer, we know that you came so that all of us might have life and have it with abundance. Whether our lives are long or brief, we invite you into the midst of them. We offer to you the wounds we bear in body, mind, or spirit. We hold them out, acknowledging their presence, and we invite you to share our pain. O Christ, we ask to be made whole. We ask for healing. Help loosen that which binds us to old and unhealthy conditions. Help us walk into the verdant garden of your healing love. Give us the courage to seek the professional help we need. Make us partners in seeking and providing wholeness, and help us to spread your healing and compassion throughout your world.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal @plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Luke 15.1-2, 11-32 (Proper 11)*
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson
I would guess that most, if not all, of us have had the experience of receiving a genuine and effusive compliment only to turn it aside, deflect it. This is a learned skill that adults have and goes something like this: “Oh, this dress, this shirt…“It’s a hand-me-down” or “It’s so old.” Or “You liked the meal? Sorry, I burnt the edges of the roast.” Or “The vegetables were a little soggy.” Or when we have done something helpful action. (shrug) “It was really nothing…not that hard.” Or when someone really appreciates your musical performance or your good work on a project, or the completions of a housekeeping task at home…..etc, etc, etc. you say, “It was really nothing.”
What’s up with this? Our propensity for deflecting compliments? Have you ever practiced looking the person complimenting you in the eye and really letting it soak into your soul and nurture you by simply saying, “Thank You.” If we can’t receive something as hopefully daily and routine as a compliment, can we receive the grace and compassion of God?
It’s a peculiar thing about humans. We would rather dwell on the have nots of life, out of fear and an attitude of scarcity, than on the gifts and abundance of life. We are often afraid to trust compassion and grace. We are often afraid to trust.
The late Dr. Fred Craddock, New Testament scholar and preacher extraordinaire, wrote: “Easily the most familiar of all Jesus’ parables, this story [our scripture today, the one we just heard] has been embraced by many persons who have not felt the full impact of the offence of grace that it dramatically conveys. The focus of the parable is the father: ‘There was a man who had two sons,” but it is most often called the parable of the prodigal son.” [Craddock, Fred B., Luke, Interpretation Series, (John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 186).]
Craddock goes on to point out that historically much of the preaching of the church on the three parables in the 15th chapter of Luke’s gospel focuses on the negative….the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. Yet each of the parables ends with rejoicing and celebration and forgiveness. Why do we as human beings overlook the extravagant gift of grace in these stories? Why is this grace so offensive, perhaps, embarrassing, to us that we focus on the conditions the gospel describes of being fallen, out of sync, lost, rather than on the gospel’s message itself – God’s good news of grace, compassion and forgiveness delivered through Jesus? Have we so little compassion for ourselves and others? So little trust in the Holy Compassionate One in whom we live and breathe and have our being?
This week at Plymouth we started Compassion Camp, an intergenerational, online and in-home exploration of compassion. Compassion means “to suffer with, to feel with.” Not to feel sorry for in patronizing pity. But to feel along with another person, usually in a time of pain and sorrow, rather than try and fix the situation or the person in order to avoid the pain. To simply feel with, suffer with…and perhaps, also to be in joy with for joy and sorrow can be two sides of an experience. Each week of Compassion Camp there is a theme exploring how we experience compassion, with our neighbors, with our selves, with our world. I hope you will participate with as many of the online offerings and in-home crafts, prayers, and ponderings as you can.
Since Monday during this first week of Compassion Camp we have been pondering the extravagant welcome of God, the Compassionate One that is always extended to us, always inviting us to gather at the table God’s abundance no matter what life is throwing at us. This is the compassion and welcome extended by the father in our story to both of his sons – to the one son who can only learn by experiencing and making every mistake in the book, even to the point of starving to death and to the other son who thinks he can learn it all by following every rule and getting a pin for perfect attendance. Which sibling do you tend to be? I have been them both at different times in my life.
Jesus shares with us in metaphor in the abundantly loving father figure we experience in his story. This character tells us something about the Divine Father or Mother, the loving Parent/Creator/Friend and Guide, who is ALWAYS welcoming us home. As well as, ALWAYS giving us the freedom to experience life as we choose. We can choose to be prodigal, wasteful and extravagant in our consumption and acquisition of what we think will make us successful, will make us feel good. Prodigal in these ways to the point of self-loathing and self-destruction. We can choose to be prodigal, extravagantly wasteful of love and relationships through rigid rule-following, holding our cards too close to our chests so to speak and refusing intimacy in relationships, by holding attitudes of judgment that cut us off from compassion for ourselves and others, even as it looks as if we are successful and right-living.
Most of us find ourselves somewhere in between these two extremes. Wherever we are on the spectrum the Compassionate One is patiently waiting for us to come home, to welcome us around the table of abundance and celebration and joy, no matter what wounds we may bring with us. This is the third choice. We can choose to live the experiences, the mistakes and successes, of our lives in relationship around God’s table of community. There our wounds are not instantly healed in a pie-in-the-sky instant fix. What we do find is the gift of this “offensive” extravagance of grace, as Dr. Craddock put it so shockingly. The prodigality, if you will, of God’s grace and compassion. The cups of grace at God’s table are running over. Grace is spilling over “wastefully” in joy and celebration, in forgiveness and love that nurtures all who willing to sit at God’s table of compassion. You see, my friends, the God revealed in Jesus the Christ is the ultimate manifestation of compassion. God feels with our suffering, sits in midst of our suffering with us, walks with us in relationship toward healing as we gather around Love’s beloved community table.
So who in Jesus’ story, do you think, is really the prodigal, the extravagantly wasteful one? Is this story about the mistakes of sons or the overly abundant generosity and compassion of a father?
As we ponder our responses, the situations of our lives, our family relationships, friend relationships, no doubt come to mind. Our relationships with our own selves, our own souls. The communal situation of our country comes to mind. Our continual confrontation with this virus, Covid-19. The terror of its virulence and tenacity, the conflicts over how to handle it. The economic travesties in its wake. The virulently renewed and in-our-face confrontation with racism and its centuries old devastation of God’s ultimate vision of the wholeness of human beings and their communities comes to mind. How do we walk in compassion, with true compassion, discovering God’s welcome in all the situations of our lives? How does Jesus’ story and its profoundly moving metaphors translate to boots-on-the-ground living in 21st century America here in our communities, our families, our schools and workplaces in Northern Colorado?
I wish I knew all the answers to my own questions. All these “hows.” But then I would be sitting at that welcome table all by myself, pretending I was God. And I’d be pretty lonely because I wouldn’t even be letting God in and it’s Her table to begin with. I’d need to hear Jesus’ story again!
The answers, the “hows” to compassionate living in this world are in the community around the table. In the community where all people are invited to share in the spilling over grace of God. Where all voices must be heard so wounds can be healed. Where all fears must be laid on the table, all angers, all hates that mask the fears. It is a safe table for vulnerability and confession. It’s a table where compassion is the power behind the listening. It’s a table where listening is the compassionate catalyst to change and transformation.
Beloved Community of Plymouth, we are the compassionate welcome table of God’s grace. That’s a great definition for church, don’t you think? We could change our name to Plymouth Welcome Table. We are being called, even in this physically distant state of things that we are in, to be connected through listening to the patient, grace-filled invitation of God to learn compassion for ourselves, for one another and for God’s beautiful and hurting creation, God’s beautiful and hurting family of human beings. How will you listen for the compassion of God as part of the Plymouth Welcome Table?
Your first opportunity is to join in the activities of Compassion Camp! We have four more weeks dedicated to exploring compassion. What a gift!
The Compassionate One is calling us home to sit at the table together. Coming to this table of compassion and grace may be a huge relief, it may feel at first like the hardest thing you have ever wanted to do. It will be the most healing. At God’s table you will hear, “Welcome home! I love you. All I have is yours! You are worthy of the grace flowing from your cup of blessing. There is enough for everyone! Tell your story. I will tell your mine. Receive, receive, receive. Invite, invite, invite. Listen, listen, listen! Let us heal the world together.” Will you look this compliment in the eye and receive it?
May it be so. Amen.
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
*Luke 15.1-2, 11-32 (Proper 11)
All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Overhearing this, Jesus began to tell stories. He told them how a shepherd risked his life to find the one sheep missing from the flock and how a woman threw a party because she had found a valuable lost coin. Then…..
11Jesus said, "A certain man had two sons. 12The younger son said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the inheritance.' Then the father divided his estate between them. 13Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living”.
14When the younger son had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired hands have more than enough food, but I'm starving to death! 18I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands." ' 20So he got up and went to his father.”
"While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21Then his son said, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.' 22But the father said to his servants, 'Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!'
25"Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, 'Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.' 28 Then the older son was furious and didn't want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, 'Look, I've served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you've never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.' 31 Then his father said, 'Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.'"
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