The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
What do you think Jesus asked for this Christmas? It probably wasn’t a PlayStation or an X-Box. Seriously, what do you think Jesus wants from you this Christmas?
Micah provides a hint: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” That’s a starting point, but those “requirements” are a fairly low bar, don’t you think? It’s almost as if the prophet is saying, “In order to earn a passing grade, you are required to do justice and so forth.” It seems to me that the incarnate Christ has more to offer and more to ask than just a passing grade.
The writer of the letter to the church in Colossae has a new take on that…that because of the redemptive power of Christ among us, we shed our old way of being and put on a new garment, clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. It’s actually a rather nice New Year metaphor, sloughing off the old clothes we wore in 2021 and instead putting on new garb that reflects the love of Christ.
We’re talking about transformation, that middle part of our Mission Statement that speaks of inviting, transforming, and sending. What would it look like in your own life — with your family, friends, church, community — to live more compassionately and kindly this year? As JT said in a sermon last month, compassion has its English and Latin roots in “to suffer with.” And in the Greek of the New Testament, the verb used for compassion — splagknidzthomai— isn’t just sympathy, it comes from “splagnon,” the Greek word for guts. You feel compassion in your body, in your guts. And it takes emobided courage, or as we say, it takes guts, to be compassionate sometimes.
Last summer in The Atlantic, Arthur Brooks, who teaches at the Kennedy School at Harvard, wrote an article called, “Love Is Medicine for Fear.” He writes, “Life, especially pandemic life, is full of threats and uncertainty. When we feel afraid, bringing more love into our lives can help…. The way to combat fear within ourselves is with its opposite emotion—which is not calmness, or even courage. It’s love.” He writes further that fear emanates primarily from our amygdala, the reptilian brain, that tells us to fight, flee, or freeze and that a neuropeptide, oxytocin, can help inhibit the automatic response of the amygdala, giving our neocortex the chance to catch up and think about the fear before jumping into a response. And you know what helps our brains to release oxytocin? You guessed it! Eye contact and physical contact with those we love. And what have we been missing through these nearly two years of pandemic? Looking one another in the eye, shaking hands, and offering a hug. I know that I miss hugs, and I’ll bet you do to. I remember how touched I was a few years back, when one of our older members told me mine was the only hug she got during the week. It’s heartbreaking to think of what missing those hugs has done to us. Brooks continues, “The math here is easy: More isolation plus more hostility equals less love; less love equals more fear. To reduce fear, we need to bring more love into our lives.”
We all know what Jesus said about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute you…but are any of us very good at putting it into practice? I know some of you are…I’ve seen you do it. I wonder what it would be like if we each made a commitment, a resolution if you will, that for the next week or the next month, we are going to be intentional about being more loving to our kids, our parents, our partners, our friends, and even our enemies. I wonder if that would help us to release some of the fear that creeps into our hearts. I wonder if looking lovingly into the eyes of someone or giving a big hug to someone in your circle of pandemic intimates would give you an oxytocin boost.
Regardless of how being more loving makes US feel, imagine how it would make those people around us feel. Maybe they would get a little hit of oxytocin that might calm their fears. Maybe they would sense love instead of anxiety. Fear and anxiety are even more virulent than the Omicron variant; they spread from one person to the next even without physical contact or aerosolized breath. But love spreads the same way, from one person to the next. Maybe we could become part of the change we hope to see in the world.
I’d like to invite you to do a short guided meditation with me, only if you wish, and only if you haven’t had a traumatic experience that might return to you. Close your eyes if you wish. Take a couple of slow, deep breaths. Feel the weight of your body being borne in your seat and by your feet on the floor. Imagine yourself sitting next to Jesus, the model of compassion. What fears or anxieties would you like him to bear for you? Is it your own fear of dying or becoming ill? Is it your fear for our planet? Is it another fear? Imagine yourself holding that fear and physically handing it over to Jesus…taking it from your lap and putting it into his. He looks back at you tenderly with his warm, brown eyes. He accepts what you have offered, and it has unburdened you. He asks what you can do to alleviate someone else’s burden. You know someone who needs to feel an expression of your love. It could be a loved one, someone you’re in conflict with, or someone you barely know. Hold a picture of that person in your mind’s eye. Offer them the gift of a loving gaze or a warm hug. They receive it with gratitude and love. They will pass that love along to another, and another, and another. As you begin to come back into this place, feel the warm presence of God within you, and know that it will be with you on every step of your journey. As you are ready, bring your attention into the present moment. And when you are ready, open your eyes.
I started this sermon by asking a question: What do you think Jesus wants for Christmas? How might you answer that question? Do you think he wants your happiness? Your compassion? Your working to forgive? Your being a blessing to one another? Your love? What gift can you offer?
You know the lines from the poet Christina Rosetti, set to music and sung as “In the Bleak Midwinter.” “What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part; Yet what can I give him — give my heart.” Amen.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.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.