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“Empathy Unites Us"

Empathy Unites Us“Empathy Unites Us”

(a sermon based upon Micah 6:6-8 on page 806 in the pew Bible)

July 26, 2020

For the past few weeks, I have been preaching from the prophet Isaiah. Two weeks ago, for example, we heard Isaiah’s metaphor of the Beloved Vineyard, which, despite all God’s efforts to bring forth “righteousness” among the chosen people, the Lord found injustice in their business and civic relationships, and war as their state policy. Isaiah warned that God would remove God’s protection and blessing from their nation if they did not repent and improve their behavior.

Last Sunday, I told about the ill-fated Assyrian invasion of Judea by Sennacherib, and the sudden death of 185,000 soldiers during the siege of Jerusalem. The ten tribes to the North had been destroyed, but the Jews were spared on that occasion, and they felt blessed. They held celebrative worship services in the Temple with lots of rigmarole. But Isaiah said that the Lord God was not pleased with the way they were behaving toward one another in daily life.

The Lord said: “Trample my courts no more! Bringing offerings is futile! Incense is an abomination to me! … I cannot endure your solemn assemblies… My soul hates your convocations and your appointed festivals! They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. Your hands are full of blood! Wash yourselves. Make yourselves clean. (!) Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes.” What Isaiah said meant that no amount of sacrifice, or of offerings, will make up for the people’s complicity in the wrong-doings of their day. “Remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes. Cease to do evil. (!) Learn to do good. (!)

“Seek justice: rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

That was Isaiah’s sermon last week.Today, we heard a similar complaint from the prophet Micah. Apparently people were trying to please God by bringing bulls and calves, and sheep and rams, to sacrifice by the thousands at the Temple (burnt offerings); and donating tens of thousands of gallons of olive oil; even offering to give their first-born to the Lord, if that was what the priests required. They wanted the Lord God to be pleased with them. The people wanted to clear their conscience, make up for their transgressions, wipe away the sin of their soul. But, according to Micah, all these extravagant worship services and sacrifices were missing the point.

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Doing justice has to do with the rights of people, no matter who they are, no matter where they live, no matter how much money or power they have. Every child of God deserves to be treated with dignity. Isn’t that at the core of the statement “black lives matter”?

In the name of justice, we should be active in righting the wrongs -- in changing the structures and systems, in protecting the freedoms and very lives -- of people who have been marginalized.

To love kindness seems much easier than to do justice. To act for “justice” gets us up from our seats and out into the streets. It forces us to stand up and be counted… to speak up and not remain silent. To do justice might even put a mark on us in public. To engage matters of social justice might upset one side or the other.

To love kindness is simply more simple! Kindness is nice, right?

Wasn’t it the late, great Fred Rodgers (Mr. Rodger’s Neighbor-hood”) who said the three most important things in life are “to be kind, to be kind, & be kind”?

Christian counselors believe that when they show empathy, warmth, and understanding for those who come to them for help, they are expressing the kind of love toward persons that Micah wrote about, and that Jesus himself exemplified in his life and teachings. Their listening to the other, as well as any therapeutic techniques or advice they offer, is an expression of their kindness.

The Hebrew word “hesed” is actually a bit stronger than “loving kindness” – stronger even than loving “mercy”, which is how the King James Bible translates it. “Hesed” is a characteristic attributed to the Lord Yahweh who established the Covenant with Moses at Mt. Sinai: to love Israel “steadfastly”, that is, without faltering or failing.

“Steadfast love” always entails “showing mercy” because everyone makes mistakes, everyone needs to be listened to; people need to be forgiven when they “repent” and see things a new way.

To me, “mercy” is part “sympathy” (care & concern for the other), but it is best when it’s “empathy” (knowing how it feels, because you’ve been there, too). It’s walking in the other person’s shoes for a while. In our terribly divided society right now – politically, racially, economically -- Micah’s three-fold requirement may help unite us!

Micah says that the Lord requires from us that we: (1) Do Justice, (2) Love Kindness – that is, show mercy, empathy, steadfast love, and (3) walk humbly with our God. Doing this will not only better unite us as fellow human beings, it promises to unite us with the Lord God as well!

I was looking for a way to put real-life flesh on the skeleton of Micah’s formula, when I came across former CBS News anchor Dan Rather’s book “What Unites Us”. In it, he highlights the power of “empathy” to make a real difference for the good of society. Dan Rather remembers back to his childhood during the Great Depression. He writes:

“The families that were lucky enough to have work usually had only meager part-time jobs. A full-time job like the one my father had working the oil fields was rare and considered a blessing, no matter the pay, the hours, or the amount of back-breaking labor it entailed. That was what the United States of America was like not that long ago: a country where families struggled to live on dirt streets, with dirt floors and little or no income to pay the grocery or medical bills. None of this was considered particularly unusual at the time. It was just the way things were.”

Dan Rather goes on to describe some of the neighbors in dilapidated houses and families living under corrugated tin roofs. “Despite their abject poverty,” he writes, “they didn’t seem to qualify for the government’s new “relief” program (otherwise known as “the dole”). Public support was far less systematic than it is today.

The neighborhood tried as best it could to help those families stay alive. If we had left-overs after supper, we would walk them across the street. One of my earliest impressions (writes Dan Rather) was taking that short journey with my father.

You might think that these families were humiliated by the offerings, but there is no dignity in being hungry. And there was no judgment or disdain on the part of those offering assistance. No one wondered why those neighbors weren’t working, and no one passed moral judgments on their inability to fend for themselves. We understood that, in life, some are dealt aces, some tens, and some deuces.

Food wasn’t the only assistance we provided. One morning (writes Dan Rather) I watched my uncle John dig a ditch from our house across the gravel road to the ramshackle house. The family had been unable to pay their water bills, and my uncle was good with pipes. So he connected the two houses, and we shared our water with them. These acts of kindness were not unusual among neighbors. Necessity was a great motivator for innovation and empathy.

Dan Rather tells of how his father and uncle pooled their money, meager though it was, to buy simple toys for the neighbor children… and gave them on Christmas Eve so they wouldn’t think Santa had forsaken them. Dan asked his mother why they gave those families gifts at Christmas when they themselves didn’t have much. Then he answered for himself: “It was because we felt sorry for them, right?”

“We do not feel sorry for them,” his mother said sternly. “We understand how they feel.” It was a lesson (writes Dan Rather) that is so seared in my mind, I can see her face and I can hear her tone of voice as if it were yesterday.

What my family did was not heroic (he writes). I like to think of it more as neighborly. And it was in line with a national ethos in those dark days, repeated countless times in countless communities across the country. We understood that those who were suffering weren’t lazy or lacking the desire to do better. Fate had the potential to slap any of us.

Dan Rather points out that “the same generation that had been driven to such depths [of Depression] in the 1930’s rose up to push back the forces of totalitarianism in a two-ocean global war in the 1940’s. … Empathy builds community (he writes). Communities strengthen a country and its resolve to fight back. We were never as unified in national purpose as we were in those days. What had weakened us had also made us stronger.

Indeed, [American] empathy continued after the war. (Dan Rather writes) One of the best foreign policy efforts in American history was to help rebuild Europe and Japan. Our enemies became our friends through an acknowledgment of the common bonds of humanity.

The postwar world order was built on that foundation. And when the GI’s returned home, we treated them empathetically as well. The “Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944”, more commonly known as the “GI Bill”, was one of the greatest pieces of social legislation in our nation’s history. Among other benefits, the G.I. Bill ensured that servicemen’s tuitions to college or technical school [to learn a trade] were fully paid. Empathy makes for wise foreign and domestic policy. [I might add, it was the G.I. Bill that paid my tuition and housing expenses when I went through seminary 40 years ago, so I came out with no student loan debt. That would be a luxury for students today!]

Dan Rather says “a great spasm of empathetic legislation came in the midst of the Great Depression. The beginning of Social Security is the most notable example, but there were a host of other programs that aimed to bring relief (and the dignity of work) to a populace in desperate need. … One of the most consequential was the WPA (Works Progress Administration), which at its height employed millions of people in public works projects across the country. … The SEC (Securities & Exchange Commission), which regulated the stock market and other financial exchanges; and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which established a minimum wage, overtime pay, & child labor laws.

[I would add a more current example of empathetic legislation in this past April’s CARES Act, which included (1) the Payroll Protection Plan -- loans of money to companies who would otherwise have closed during the pandemic shut-down of the economy, which are forgivable if they re-hire their workers -- and the $600-per-week additional unemployment pay, as well as extending unemployment coverage to “gig” workers and “independent contractors” who formerly were not eligible.]

Dan Rather says that Social Security, the Securities & Exchange Act, and the Fair Labor Standard Act are “an example of the enduring legacy of that time. This effort was widely popular and seen as worthy and necessary actions of a government in touch with the needs of the people it served.” [His words struck me as such a contrast with today’s bitter partisan divisiveness & relentless distractions in our national politics.]

Dan Rather writes: A second wave of such legislation came in the 1960’s as the children of the Great Depression and World War II grew into adulthood. President John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier” began efforts to improve racial justice, labor rights, antipoverty programs, education, medical care, and many other needs. It peaked with President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”. The scope of legislation from this time is still staggering: The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, among others. Note that most of these laws were passed with considerable – sometimes overwhelming – bipartisan support. … [Wouldn’t that be great to see today!?]

Today these kinds of empathetic programs are associated with “big government bureaucracies”. … The spirit of empathy with which they were created has been lost (writes Dan Rather). Empathy is a deeply personal emotion. It is about the feeling one has for one’s fellow human beings. Transferring responsibilities to “government” is often necessary, but it creates a distance between us and those who need help. …

I worry (writes Dan Rather) that our nation today suffers from a deficit of empathy, and this is especially true of many in positions of national leadership. … We see a rising “tribalism” along cultural, ethnic, and economic class. … When we live in a self-selected “bubble” of friends, neighbors, and colleagues,, it is too easy to forget how important it is to try to walk in the shoes of others.

[I would add: people seem to be living in silos of self-interest (such as not wearing a facemask because it’s my right, regardless of the rules or how it might affect someone else); we live in “echo-chambers” of like-mindedness, rather than opening our minds to listen to people who see things differently.]

Dan Rather writes: Technology and social media can be tools for connecting us, but I fear these advancements are in many ways deepening and hardening the divisions between us.

Very few families escaped the wounds of the Great Depression and [deprivations of] World War II. In the intervening decades, however (writes Dan Rather), the wealthy and the powerful largely have been protected from upheavals by a shield of immunity. A “commonality” of understanding has been lost. Where once the American experience was one of a spectrum from the rich to the poor, now we live in “pockets” that insulate us from others. We have more in the ranks of the extremely wealthy … and a larger pool falling further and further behind. So we grow more isolated and less empathetic. … We see others, but we cannot imagine what their lives are actually like. We don’t even think we should have to bother. [Black lives matter. Blue lives matter. All lives matter. So what, do we care?]

Dan Rather points out that: Dividing people and stoking animosity can pave a path to power. This has been well-known since the time of the ancients. But these divisions inevitably come at the expense of the long-term health and welfare of the nation as a whole. We have seen many examples from our history where the economic and social interests of one group have been pitted against another’s – on immigration, labor rights, environmental protections, racial justice, and so many more. Such clashes usually do not end very well. In contrast, there have been moments where we reached out to one another as a nation, channeling what unites us rather than what separates us. It might be hard to imagine today, but there were times when the common purpose of the United States seemed to rise above pettiness and narrow self-interest.

One often finds the greatest lack of empathy in those who were born lucky (says Dan Rather). They tend to misidentify that luck as the superiority of their character. … Take a moment to imagine the most sanctimonious of our current national voices. Think of those who lecture most loudly… from the perch of privilege. Imagine those who blame the victims of discrimination and poverty [for their plight, as though it’s their fault for being downtrodden]. Dan Rather says: These people are in dire need of humility, a humility bathed in the refreshing waters of empathy. We can all afford to drink more from that spring as well. (So he writes in his book “What Unites Us”.)

Dan Rather has helped us put living flesh on the bare skeleton of Micah’s words: “What does the Lord require of you? To act with justice, and to love mercy (empathy), and to walk humbly with your God.” “Walking humbly” is a beautiful phrase.

Unfortunately, humility has not always characterized the lives of Christians. “Haughtiness” is probably more common than “humility” as an American virtue… just think of our celebrities and our political leaders. A lot of people, in fact, would be rightly judged by Micah’s admonition to “walk humbly”.

Dan Rather said: people who were born lucky, born into families of wealth, may be in dire need of humility – humility bathed in the refreshing waters of empathy. But, as he said in the end, “we can all afford to drink more from that spring as well.”

Empathy, Humility, and Justice. It’s a winning combination, in God’s eyes. Let’s do it! Amen? Amen.

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