First United Methodist Church
August 27th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
The World we Live in: The Church Responds with Compassion
Think of a time when you had to stand up against something you thought was wrong. Maybe your parents were treating you unfairly, or a teacher accused you of doing something that you didn’t do, or perhaps you had to stand against a bully or a group of “mean girls.” If you have some life experience behind you, you may have addressed a company policy that you thought was wrong, or perhaps you called a customer service line to try to resolve a complaint that you had. Whatever the situation might have been, what was it that caused you to take action? Do you remember? Which emotion influenced you the most?
On December 16, 1773, a group of men who called themselves the Sons of Liberty destroyed an entire shipment of tea in the Boston harbor. This protest against the British Tea Act eventually became known as the Boston Tea Party. The British government responded harshly to this episode which ultimately escalated into the American Revolution. This Tea Party became an iconic event of American history, and has been followed by many other political protests, which in modern language is often called civil disobedience. The Boston Tea Party was meant to be a peaceful form of resistance that would result in a change of an existing law.
From the British perspective, they had every right to charge the colonists the tax on tea. They had fought wars on the colonists’ behalf, they had expanded the American territory by defeating the French in the French and Indian War, and the colonists had opportunities in America that they would never have had in Europe. For all practical purposes, the colonists should have gratefully paid the tax to help England restore their treasury. And the colonists just might have paid the tax if the British weren’t treating them more like property than fellow citizens, believing that the wealth that was available in the colonies belonged to British Crown. As the British imposed more and more Imperial laws on the colonies, the people in the colonies decided that they had had enough, and when the tea tax was imposed, they resisted.
From a historical perspective, the Boston Tea Party represents one of several incidents that initiated the American Revolution. However, if we were to explore this particular incident in detail, I think we would discover a number of ethical concerns with it – coming from both sides. The Continental Congress did not celebrate this resistance; in fact, they were working very hard to avoid conflict through negotiations. The resistance from the colonists and the resulting oppression from the British government escalated because both sides insisted that they were right.
It was during this time that John Wesley was developing the Methodist movement within the Church of England and also sending lay ministers to the colonies. Knowing that his personal position regarding the resistance in the colonies reflected loyalty to the monarchy, it’s interesting that his training, or instructions, for these ministers focused primarily on proclaiming God’s grace and taking care of the poor and not on developing loyalty to the crown.
As Christians, I think that we are called to resist taking sides and to try not to figure out who is right and who is wrong. It’s okay to have an opinion, and it’s natural to get angry – believe me, I get angry every time I read about the untimely death of another human being – regardless of how it happens. But when anger becomes the driving force behind our decision making, it becomes dangerous. I think this is one of the reasons Paul lists anger right alongside sexual immorality and witchcraft in Galatians 5 when he talks about sin. Jesus invites us to resist being led by these sins and to allow ourselves to be led the Holy Spirit.
In Romans, Paul challenges us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Much of Wesley’s ministry was strongly influenced by this passage, and he often confronted religious leaders as he transformed the church – continuously reminding his parishioners that God’s work was centered in compassion, ministering to the sick, teaching and nurturing the children of prisoners, and caring for widows, orphans and the poor.
Although the world has changed quite a bit since Paul’s or Wesley’s time, we are still challenged by this text as we address situations in the 21st Century. The past few weeks have given us a lot to think about. Our world continues to be devastated by natural disasters such as fires and floods. Individuals and communities battle against substance abuse, disease and violence. We read about shootings every day. Poverty consumes a large percentage of our population. Child abuse and neglect is still a part of every community. Wars continue to be fought, and young people of all nations lose their lives as they serve as soldiers or are victimized in the fighting. Violence and death surround us. This is the world that we live in.
As the Church, I think we have to seriously consider how we react, or respond, to these situations, because how we respond defines who we really are. It’s human nature to want to choose one side or the other. But Jesus challenges us to live like he does. Throughout the gospels, we don’t see Jesus taking sides. Jesus responds to each individual situation in the same way – with compassion. Whether a person is mourning, chronically ill, disabled, immoral, hungry or frightened, Jesus offers compassion.
I highly doubt that Jesus is observing the events in our world and making decisions about who is right and who is wrong. My guess is that he is in Jacksonville Florida, comforting the family members of the victims as well as the suspect. I imagine that he weeps for the victims of the war between Russia and Ukraine, both the soldiers and civilians. I assume that he not only helps the refugees who flee these countries to reach the humanitarian aid that is being offered, but also tries to lead people to safety when bombs are dropping nearby. I believe that he also helps the people in Maui and Washington and Canada who are struggling to recover from the destruction of the wildfires, and the folks in Michigan and Ohio who were struck by severe storms last week. And I also picture him with the families of Bob Barker and Tina Turner and Harry Bellefonte, just as I picture him with the families of each one of us when we experience the loss of a loved one.
What we have to realize is that Jesus had qualities that represent one thing, and that one thing is love. He was love on two legs. He brought joy and peace. He was patient – even when his own followers didn’t understand what he was teaching. He was kind, good, faithful and gentle. And he had a miraculous amount of self-control. He willingly accepted his death, and when resurrected, he continued to teach and prepare his disciples. And then Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into his followers. Why did he do that? He did it so that the Holy Spirit could help us to be just like Jesus.
A few years ago I was headed to a meeting when I heard the news of a school shooting. When I got out of the car I must have been visibly upset because someone asked me what was wrong. When I shared the news, this person responded by saying, “I’ll bet they’ll use this as another reason to take our guns away.” I was a little offended by his statement, not so much because he clearly stated his position regarding gun control which isn’t the same as mine (I have several friends who have different views about guns than I do), but because I felt that an appropriate Christian response should have included some compassion. I didn’t know the children who died, but I did know that they had parents who loved them and who would be devastated by their deaths.
It made me think about another school shooting that occurred in an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania. Several girls were killed along with the shooter, who took his own life.
On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, "We must not think evil of this man". An Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts' funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.
Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, "Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need.”
When criticized for their quick and complete forgiveness, they explained that the Amish willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful.
Paul tells us to “be not conformed to this world and he reminds all of us that we are called to set our minds on divine things rather than human things, which at times may cause us to set our personal opinions aside in order to simply respond as Jesus would respond. As the church we proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God, and with that proclamation we strive to live like Jesus. Therefore, when others respond with hate or judgment, as the church, we are called to respond with compassion. Let us pray...
God of love,
open our hearts to each other.
Give us the courage to resist oppression.
Help us protect the world from evil.
Give us the wisdom to see ourselves as we truly are.
Give us the vision to see you and hear your voice.
Give us the courage to answer your call
Grant us the endurance to use our gifts
for the purpose of your realm.
Work your transforming love within us
that we may know your will
and serve you with joy. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship*
Family of God, go from this place led by the Triune God who loves you, saves you, and sustains you, that in our following, we may be agents of goodness and blessing wherever we go. Amen.