Our nation and the universal church have become increasingly polarized and divided; we say mean and hurtful things to each “other” and quit listening to each other. Our gospel passage begins with this: “But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies.” Jesus challenges the crowd to hear. Then he says this phrase, “Love your enemies.” He doesn’t just tell us to listen to them. We are to love them! Can you imagine how the people around Jesus must have looked at one another with astonishment, shaking their heads at the practicality of it all. Some must have decided that they were not “willing to hear” and walked away, sad and confused. Others began to work on how to put that truth into action. Which enemy might they “love” without risking their own position? Others tried to imagine how they could love their enemies. Our imaginations can help us to see all the people who were there that day listening to Jesus. Their responses were not all the same. They were not what you could say, “on the same page”.
Those of us who live in the United States live in a democracy, yet a very complicated democracy. The Episcopal Church is conceived as a quasi-democracy too, with legislative, executive, and judicial branches. I grew up thinking that democracy is the best form of government. Now I am seeing it more clearly, and I realize that democracy creates winners and losers. Winners take all. The losers are expected to accept the decision and wait until the next vote! But as an attentive adult, I see people who were on the losing side, and those sides seem to change from time to time, and I worry that their voices are not heard. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” (Winston Churchill)
I personally think that it’s important to take an ethical or moral position, but it’s just as important to be flexible, to try to view things from somebody else’s perspective, at least to the best of your ability to do so, to vote and to vote your conscience, but to do so with a spirit of understanding and empathy for others. I like to think of building bridges to build understanding through dialogue, working to understand other perspectives. If not, it’s always going to be them against us or us against them. I guess I’m enough of an idealist that people can reason and share together, to look at underlying roots, and principles so common throughout the Bible about caring for the poor, not taking advantage of others to your own benefit and servant leadership as a model to leadership to emulate, putting others first, trying to walk in other people’s shoes. As St. Paul in so aptly summarizes: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves”. (Philippians 2:3) What’s the alternative?
I very rarely post anything on social media, and I usually ignore controversial issues that are posted positions that fly in the face of civility and gentleness. You know, it used to be when you got together at family reunions and other gatherings, you would know who in the family was liberal or conservative, and what each other’s thoughts were, at least in general. And we got along despite it. Because we knew that regardless of differences, we cared for the good and welfare of each other. I think social media has changed all that. Don’t you? There are family members that won’t talk to each other, and splits that may be too big to mend. It’s all a very sad state-of-affairs.
When I read some of the contemporary and progressive Christian writers, I am somewhat jealous that they appear to say whatever they want and get away with it. Some writers seemingly have built their careers without much fear of retaliation of stepping on other people’s shoes and feelings. I’m not saying that I always disagree with them, because I don’t. But I know if I was as blunt and forward in my sermons and articles, I would isolate some people that I minister and have a good pastor/parishioner relationship. But these writers don’t have to worry about offending someone in their congregation or someone that just happens to read one of their books, because they have enough of a following to continue to reach a group of readers. It doesn’t matter if they offend someone, because the group of people they are reaching will continue to buy their books and book speaker arrangements.
My brothers and sisters, empathy to me is working with you in committees, small groups, one on one, teaching and preaching the Gospel of Christ. Because when I preach and teach from the sayings of Jesus and the prophetic teachings of the NT writers that instruct us how we should live our lives in service to Christ and in service to others. This two-pronged commitment to Christ and to others requires listening and seeing with the ears and the eyes of the heart.
The unity of spirit and understanding that we seek is a sense of humility that we are called to “love our neighbor as ourselves”. We are called to practice mindfulness and empathy. Such is the foundation of the fruit of the Spirit: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, meekness, temperance and faith. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit”. (Galatians 5:22,25)
May we all pursue the art of listening, “to understand in order to be understood”, and to do our best to develop empathy by walking in someone else’s shoes.