2017 was a tough year for hurricanes. America was hit by a back-to-back trio of hurricanes that left our whole nation reeling. But besides all the devastation, there were numerous heartwarming stories about people helping people.
In Houston, after Harvey, Mattress Mack opened up his furniture store for anyone who needed a place to stay. Families hung out on his sofas. Men, women and children slept on his beds. In an interview, Mack said he was moved by his faith. “I had to do this. What else could I do?” he asked.
In Florida, after Irma, as in South Texas, churches, mosques and synagogues opened their doors for their neighbors. Restaurants reopened as quickly as they could and cooked up huge meals to deliver to rescue workers. One millionaire couple opened their mansion for several days to house 70 foster children whose shelter had flooded.
In Puerto Rico, after hurricane Maria, Michelle Narvaez waited in line for an hour in order to buy groceries at twice the normal price. She brought her supplies home, cooked everything she had (because she has no electricity to refrigerate) and shared it with her neighbors. Then the next day, she would go back to the store and do the same thing all over again.
The helping ministry for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Week of Compassion, has been working overtime helping our neighbors who have experienced floods and fires and famine across the globe. I am so proud of my denomination for these impressive acts of compassion in Christ’s name.
It is powerful witness when neighbors reach out to help one another across all our typical differences and divisions. Animosities fall away in the face of disaster.
Compassion builds bridges. Even if it is just for a while.
So my question is: How can the church become a real force to shape our world for compassion all the time? Not just during a crisis, but every day?
Luke tells us about a conversation between Jesus and a shrewd lawyer.
A lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, “But who is my neighbor?”
Here is Jesus’ answer:
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Do you see how Jesus flipped the lawyer’s question? Instead of “who is my neighbor,” Jesus asked: “will you be a neighbor?”
The lawyer began well. His answers about loving God and loving neighbor are spot on. Except, I think, for this: the man seemed to believe that love is a noun.
Jesus’ parable, however, teaches us that love is a verb.
Love God. With heart, soul, strength, mind. Every thought, every feeling, every action, every ounce of our being is to be shaped by and powered by the love of God.
Or maybe I should say it this way: everything we are and everything we do is to be powered by God’s own love
When Matthew and Mark tell of a similar encounter, Jesus calls these two loves “commandments.” The greatest commandment is to love God. The second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.
So have you ever wondered why God commands love? Isn’t love a feeling, an emotion? How does one command our emotions? Someone tells you: don’t be angry; don’t be sad. Or: Snap out of it. Be happy. Are you able to control your feelings so easily? I’m sure not. There is no way deep human gut reactions can be commanded.
But the kind of love that God calls for is not a feeling; this love is not just an emotion. Love is a verb. The commands are for complete allegiance to God and acts of mercy to others.
One of my favorite phrases in this little story says our hero was “moved with pity.” The man did feel something. His heart was broken for the broken man crumpled at his feet. Pity-Compassion-Mercy moved his heart. And then moved his hands into action. He couldn’t do everything but he could do something. He did what he could.
Love is a verb.
So who is my neighbor? Anyone who needs mercy.
And who is the neighbor? Anyone who does mercy.
We call this little story the parable of the Good Samaritan because it highlights the differences and divisions that normally operated between Jews and Samaritans. Any Jew hearing Jesus tell this story would have been shocked to see the despised, half breed Samaritan as the good guy. But they also would have been aghast at the hard heartedness of the priest and the Levite in this story.
Any faithful Jew, even to this day, prays the Shema every morning and every evening:
Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.
The religious characters in our story must have prayed these words over and over again throughout their life. But maybe they were only words to them. Maybe they believed love is a noun. Evidently every ounce of their being had not been shaped and powered by the love of God.
Or again, shaped and powered by God’s own love.
I say it this way because we humans have zero ability to truly obey these two core commandments. In our broken, bent-into-ourselves self-centeredness, we can never muster enough love within ourselves to fulfill these commands.
So that brings me back to my original question: How on earth can this broken body of Christ ever hope to become a real force shaping our world for compassion?
Only by this:
By allowing God’s love to love through us.
By permitting God’s love to transform our heart, soul, strength and mind.
By opening ourselves up to the love that is the very being of God and letting this movement of love move us to action.
Only then will the body of Christ break through its crippling paralysis and navel gazing and become transformed into a movement of welcome and compassion and mercy.
Only then will the church be able to give witness to the gospel.
The gospel. Remember what the gospel is: “God so loved the world that God gave the only begotten Son.”
Love is a verb. If God acted with such mercy and compassion for the whole world, then what should be our own response to this good news? Love God. Love neighbor.
Our world is starving for love. We are inundated with animosities and divisions and fragmentation; with hatred and violence and disdain; with blame and shame and apathy and hardness of heart.
All around us, neighbors are yearning for love and acceptance and hope.
Who will show them mercy? Who will be their neighbor?