This is the first sermon I wrote, which I preached at the Toronto Chinese Mennonite Church on March 3, 2019.
I am hoping to take some time this Sunday morning to contemplate the role that compassion plays in our lives , the gift of creation, and our responsibilities to each other and to the world.
Nothing that I have to say is new, in fact most of what I have to say you’ve probably heard before in one form or another.
Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the phrase, “you already know everything you need to know about religion.” While this phrase may sound counter-intuitive given that we meet at church every week to learn from the bible, my interpretation of this phrase is that the goal of spiritual practice is not necessary to discover new and innovative ideas that no one’s ever thought of. Rather, faith is the practice is of remembering, of gently bringing us back, over and over, to the truths that are constantly enduring, the answers that have always been there, when we remember to look.
God is the summation of infinity. The source of all light and matter in the universe. The picture of God as our father, resembling a wisened old man, is a useful personification, helping us engage with concepts far beyond our limited human comprehension. We have a mental image that we draw upon when we think of God, and this image may have certain similarities or differences between different people. The personification that we create allows us to relate to God in terms that are familiar and comforting to us. And to be eternally present in our lives as a source of familiarity and comfort is one of the forms of love that God provides us.
But we must be careful that we do not limit our perception of God by how we personify him. Genesis 1:27 states that God created human kind in his image. This is one of the first challenges the Bible presents to us. We are called to know the Holy Spirit as vast beyond what any single form could express, and to see it manifested in every person we encounter in our lives. However strange or difficult or unfamiliar, we are asked to see the person in front of us as a person who has been created in God’s image, and is one manifestation of his infinitely creative wisdom, equal to us in his eyes.
To dismiss the humanity of any person is to place ourselves above an aspect of God, and this is a danger to our souls and a major obstacle in our path to liberation through Christ. The path to goodness can present unique obstacles in itself, as the temptation of ego is constantly looking for ways to creep into our spiritual practice, persuading us to think of ourselves as more good, more holy, or more deserving than someone else. The world is full of suffering that riddles our hearts with insecurity, wanting so badly to feel acceptable that we will dismiss others to affirm ourselves. But there is no need. God’s love and mercy is so vast and infinite, it can envelope us completely with room left for everyone else. It is this love that we are called to enact on the Earth.
God works through human beings as his instruments, and people will challenge us so that we have opportunities to grow and to practice the endless compassion of Christ. If we found every person we encountered to be understandable, relatable, and agreeable, then our moral development would stagnate. Compassion develops like any skill, through practice, and the more severe circumstances we are able to respond to with compassion, the more skillful our hearts become, and the closer we grow in our connection to God. This world has been all but broken by greed, war, discrimination and violence, and each of us carries unhealed wounds from the life we have lived. So with every person, especially those who challenge us, we are called to see them for who they are. Not as a reflection of ourselves, but as a child of God, and a person burdened by the unique traumas of their life. By keeping in mind the universal nature of suffering, our capacity for understanding becomes infinite. We can remind ourselves that when others fail to treat us with compassion, they are acting out of their own pain, or entitlement, but we can come to understand that their biases and inability to perceive us as children of God mean nothing about our inherent worth.
The gift of life on this Earth is something so unique and spectacular that nothing we do with our lives could ever truly repay the privilege we have been given. All that is asked from us is to conduct ourselves with a responsibility and appreciation for this holy gift. Our responsibilities to God can be broken down further into our responsibilities to ourselves, to other people, and to the Earth itself: the plants, animals, water, soil, and air that God created. Especially in the context of the current state of the world, these duties of responsibility are something that we must hold in our hearts and take with us to prayer and action every day.
When God created the Earth, and all creatures upon it, he entrusted this land to us. Since we were created in God’s image and are the closest to God of any of his creatures, we were given the divine and serious responsibility of acting as stewards of the Earth, maintaining this environment for ourselves and for all of God’s creatures. This right to dominion has been often misinterpreted as entitlement, and for years through unsustainable industrial development, deforestation, resource extraction, and colonization, we have treated the Earth as if it is ours for the taking, with hardly a thought to the consequences for the planet, and for future generations. But nothing could be farther from the truth. Whereas the plants, and animals bare no duty towards the well-being of humanity or of any other creatures, we as people bare sole responsibility for all of it. Whatever happens to our planet, through action or inaction, only humans will be held accountable.
I chose the reading today of the story of Cain and Abel, because I think this is a particularly poignant example of our responsibilities to one another and the cost of failing to meet those responsibilities. In this story Cain, being envious of Abel, not only fails to exercise compassion towards his brother but fails to meet the most basic responsibility of not committing violence against him. Rather than celebrating Abel’s well-received gifts, and seeing him as an example of how he could please God as well, he responds to his brother’s success with self-focussed insecurity, and lashes out, killing his brother. Then, when questioned by God as to his brother’s whereabouts, he offers the dismissive reply, “am I my brother’s keeper?”
The brazenness of this response is highlighted by the obviousness of the answer. The most basic and fundamental lesson of God’s teachings being that we are to treat others as ourselves, to know ourselves and each other as part of one being in God.
In response, God tells Cain that the Earth has told him of his crime, since his brother’s blood has soaked into the Earth. I find this an interesting illustration of the interconnectedness of our actions and their consequences on our environment. In this story, the Earth is personified as a living being which bears witness on behalf of God. We often think that harms that are done in private will bear no consequences, but we can see that the Earth takes on the repercussions of every harm that is committed upon her. Every drop of blood that has ever been spilled on the Earth has absorbed into the soil, and flowed into the water. To think of it in this way, we can see that, the harm we commit against one another, and the harms we commit against the Earth itself, cannot be separated. Violence has far-reaching consequences and injures not just it’s target, but taints our whole environment.
In our world today, we can see how acts of war have become not only more violent in their human impact and more impersonal in their execution, but also have taken on a character of salting the Earth. American and Canadian military intervention in the middle east has lead to previously unheard of levels of pollution, the dumping of toxic chemicals and the use of depleted uranium rounds, which irradiate the land on which they are used. Western military forces have become one of the leading sources of pollution in the world. It seems truer now more than ever that violence harms not only people, but the ground on which is it committed, and our Earth system as a whole.
This story is also useful for illustrating the mindset that inspires violence. The murder of Abel is the first instance of violence that occurs in the Bible, and I think this story demonstrates something very universal about the nature of oppressive violence. Cain was the older brother of Abel. During the time that this story was written, the position of being the eldest son was something that held a significant amount of authority within a family, the eldest son was often regarded as second only to the father, and I think that is something that needs to be emphasized in interpreting this passage. God had no preferential regard for Cain as being the eldest brother, he saw only that Abel had given the better offering out of the two, and praised them as he felt they deserved.
When a person is born into a position of esteem, this position often causes a sense of entitlement, where we may expect ourselves naturally to achieve greater things or receive greater praise than others. This can even cause people to act in ways that are resigned or lazy, since we may feel a sense of inherent value that does not require us to prove ourselves by our actions. But God will only judge us by our actions, and pays no regard to these constructions of social heirarchy.
Without realizing it, those in positions of privilege can come to form their identity around a sense of innate superiority over others. Because of this, one can feel especially insecure or affronted when those we perceive as being beneath us surpass us in their accomplishments. When this happens, the entitled response is to suppress and deny the accomplishments of others, or be made to feel inadequate by them, which often leads to lashing out. In this way, the source of much oppressive violence is really a reactive defence of our own sense of superiority over others.
The word of Jesus, taken here from the book of Matthew, calls us to take a different path. To love those who love us, those who are similar to us and who do not challenge us, is easy. The real challenge and responsibility we must take up is to extend love beyond what comes easily to us, to regard everyone with equal compassion, as God regards us with equal compassion.
When we are able to move beyond the reflex of entitlement, we open up the possibility of a response that is based in love: to dismantle our own egos, and view ourselves as implicated in the success of others, to celebrate their success as our own and learn from them, to teach others, and to lift them up beyond ourselves.
As individuals we are all merely cells acting and interacting in different ways and taking on different roles in the formation of the body of Christ. While we have an autonomous form, our lives are constantly being created and sustained through a divine, harmonious and extremely complex network of forces, beyond our ability to comprehend. The cell works in cooperation because it understands that it’s existence is only contextualized within the body, it’s well being is dependant on the well being of the body, which is made up of other cells, and even if it was able to exist on it’s own, it would be devoid of any purpose in doing so. It is amazing that, being the complex and intellectually developed creatures that we are, we so often struggle to act with the wisdom of the smallest and simplest organisms on Earth. But these endless examples of cooperation that exist within nature surely reflect the intended design of all of God’s creations, including the higher calling of human kind.
It is always when we perceive ourselves as isolated individuals, contained of ourselves and in competition with other beings, that we become vulnerable to enacting evil and damaging others, the whole we are a part of, and ultimately ourselves. But when we can adopt the perspective of ourselves as inextricably interconnected beings, and consider carefully not only our actions, but the ripples that extend outwardly – and inwardly – from them, we will find ourselves more naturally acting out of love.
Jesus says that it is not that which goes into the body, but that which comes from the heart, that defiles a person. All sin, all violence, all entitlement and all oppression, stems from the heart, and we can see these things that come from our hearts forming our relationships with both other people and the Earth. But then by the same logic it can be said that it is not the rituals of performative charity that purifies us, but that which comes from the heart: our thoughts, words, and deeds stemming from true love for our siblings, for creation, and for God. And loving action that comes from the heart has just as much power to radically transform our relationships.
To even be a cell in the body of a plant is surely an incredible blessing, as it is a miracle to have been brought onto the Earth as a living thing in any form at all. Surely then, how many magnitudes greater of a blessing is it to be born a person? Regardless of our circumstances, appearance, abilities or any superficial qualifications, the gift to be able to live the life of a human being on this Earth is a divine gift beyond what any words could ever express. And every other beautiful, flawed, unique person who lives and struggles on this Earth has been granted that same gift.
Ultimately there is not a thing in this world that we ever deserved, or that we were owed. Every breath we take, every meal we eat, every moment of wonder at nature and the mere fact of our existence are sacred gifts which we can do nothing to repay. We can only act in the humility that signifies our understanding and appreciation for the true glory that we’ve been invited to participate in, and to act as grateful caretakers to all other people, living things, and the natural forces that sustain us in this holy project of creation. I see this as a truth that, when we bring our hearts back to it, has the power to transform us and the world in which we live.