Everyone Deserves Love
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden
Sunday, JULY 1st, 2018
Any physician worth their salt will attest that medicine is as much art as it is science. Effective physicians not only know anatomy and biochemistry but they also understand the human soul. The best doctors see their patients not just as sick bodies, but as hurting people.
By that reckoning, Jesus was the finest doctor one could have consulted, something which two of the key characters in today’s gospel reading instinctively saw in him. It wasn’t just that he had a track record of healing people, but that he inspired people to believe that life in all its fullness again was actually possible. He communicated better than anyone before or since has done that life isn’t just about existing, but is about flourishing.
Most of us aren’t doctors, but no matter what our profession or occupation, we all have opportunities each and every day to keep the needs of people above the demands of business or bottom lines.
When I was a chaplain at Duke University, I spent some time one day with Dr Brenda Armstrong, Associate Dean and Director of Admissions at Duke School of Medicine (and an Episcopalian). She was one of the first African American women at Duke, and only the second Black woman in the United States to become a board-certified pediatric cardiologist. She has devoted her life to intertwining her faith and medical talents to help Duke’s School of Medicine become a place where the needs of people transcend the demands of business or bottom lines. She passes that philosophy on to her students, too. This is what she says: "Even though it's not good for 'productivity,' I let the students spend as much time as they need with the patients and with me. You never know on which student it will have a life-changing impact.”
I remember being very struck by her words, that love transcends so-called ‘productivity’. Now, a phrase like that certainly sounds good, but when it comes to putting it into practice, then it is another thing. The problem for me is that productivity and love are not necessarily opposites. I am someone who quite likes productivity, and I like being productive. But I am aware that there can be times when I need to move a bit from the productivity side of the scales to balance it with the just being unhurriedly available side of the scales. For any of us there is always a balance to be struck in the constant tension between what we want to do and what we need to do, between what on balance serves us personally and what serves the greater common good. That, of course, is why we have laws.
We need laws because, sadly, we are self-serving and self-seeking people and more often than not we cannot be relied upon to exercise our self-discipline, personal responsibility and actions entirely motivated by love. But there are occasions when laws, which may have been designed for the common good end up being the antithesis of what Jesus would, we imagine, have done. We see this everywhere in the gospels: Jesus breaks some rules in order to keep others. He heals people on the Sabbath, which is not allowed, in order to honor the laws of loving God and loving his neighbor. If you think that you wouldn’t break the law in order to do the right thing, then think again. Here’s the example I gave a few weeks ago at our midweek Bible Study.
You are walking down, say, East 54th Street in Manhattan when you see someone crossing the street about half way down. You mutter to yourself that they are supposed to use a crosswalk. Then you hear a squeal of tires, a scream and a thud. You turn around and the pedestrian is lying in the middle of the road, blood pouring from her head. You are only meters away. What do you do? Well, there’s nothing you can do, is there? First, there isn’t a crosswalk, is there? And you’re not allowed to step into the road where there isn’t a crosswalk or you’re not fetching your parked car, because that would be jaywalking, right? And jaywalking is illegal in New York City, right? So I guess it’s just too bad. But what can you do? You’re a law-abiding person. So you just carry on walking.
Well, at one level this is clearly a ridiculous example. Of course you are going to jaywalk on this occasion, so that you can do whatever you can to help that injured person. Although the jaywalking laws are there for a good reason, they get trumped by the fulfillment of a greater law which, in this instance, is served by helping that person. Sometimes there are situations which are so egregiously at odds with what Jesus would want. Where would we be, for instance, if Rosa Parks had not broken a law by sitting in a bus seat she wasn’t allowed to, or if a group of young people in Greensboro hadn’t concluded that by sitting at a lunch counter they were, by law, prohibited from, they were making a point about God’s love transcending earthly laws.
Although in today’s reading there is no specific mention of Jesus having broken any written law this time, what he also does throughout the gospels is to break unwritten laws. At every turn Jesus questions hide-bound attitudes and bases his responses on love alone.
There are countless unwritten social contracts which – for good or ill – govern our lives. And there were certainly even more such things in Jesus’ time. For a leader of a synagogue – a highly respectable social position – to fall at the feet of an unconventional itinerant preacher was to contradict what society would have told him was right, but his love for his ailing daughter was such that it transcended such social niceties. The woman with long-term hemorrhaging was an outcast from conventional society, and the law prohibited social and physical contact with the religious functionaries. Yet when she touched Jesus – who was, after all, a religious leader – his response was love and not law.
With the leader of the synagogue and his daughter, and with the woman with hemorrhages, it is not too difficult for us to identify compassionately with them. They are victims of circumstance. They have been dealt an unfair blow by life. Bu perhaps it is harder for us to be so compassionate towards the less savory characters in the gospels, like the tax collectors and the prostitutes. Religious leaders of the time didn’t give tax collectors the time of day, but Jesus did, because it was loving to acknowledge them as cherished children of God with many talents. We are told that Jesus went to dinner with the sorts of people that were generally given an extremely wide berth. Those people were considered by religious law to be ritually unclean. Jesus not only spent time with them but, crucially, I would want to suggest, that he genuinely enjoyed being with them, too. Perhaps this doesn’t seem a terribly shocking action to us, but what if it we were to attempt to translate it into a more current example? Would we – if we were honest with ourselves – be scandalized or at least uneasy if, say, a bishop was regularly to have dinner with his local drug-dealer and clearly enjoy cultivating that friendship?
Perhaps embedded in our lack of ease with these unsavory characters is their culpability for their actions: their wrongdoing is easy to pin down and to label. Perhaps we are tempted to make distinctions between those who deserve compassion and love and those who don’t. Every day our news stories prompt us either consciously or, more often, sub-consciously, to make judgments about whether or not someone is deserving of compassion or not.
Jesus teaches us that no sin is so great that it cannot be forgiven. He teaches us that no one’s behavior is so bad that it cannot be met with a loving response. Jesus bestows dignity and worth on those he meets and by taking the time to be with them and to recognize the potential for redemption and goodness in them, he fulfills the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world. There is no partiality with his love. And he demands of his hearers and of us that our natural response to a situation is with mercy.
In short, there is no situation in which compassion is not our go-to, default response. Now, I grant you, actually being compassionate all the time is another thing – it’s difficult and we often mess up that response. But, rather, what I am saying is this: that no one – and no situation – will ever permit us to behave toward someone without compassion. No matter what.