Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ordinary Compassion
Rom. 12:1-8[1]
I think many people in our society may be looking for God in all the wrong places. They look for God in the “perfect” church, which tends to be very large, with a smorgasbord of programs so broad that everyone in the family can find something they like. Others look for God in some spectacular, supernatural experience—whether a “miracle” or a special vision, or a unique calling. Others look for God by turning inward and shutting out “the world” as a dangerous place full of hostile people. But I don’t think any of those places are the place to look for God. I think we are meant to look for God in the ordinary compassion we share with the people around us.
I’ve mentioned to some of you that I recently read (and thoroughly enjoyed) a book called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, by Paul F. Knitter. The author is a Catholic theologian who’s lived out a dialogue with Buddhism for 40 years—primarily through his relationship with his wife, who is a practicing Buddhist! One of his major themes is the idea that there are some significant connections between Christianity and Buddhism. He uses those connections as a way of re-framing Christian faith where it seems to have gone astray—as in where to look to find God. In essence, Knitter has found a way to be more “Christian” through the influence of Buddhism!
One of the primary teachings of Buddhism is reflected in the greeting, “Namasté.” It’s a greeting that means, “the light within me honors the light within you.”[2] It seems to me that someone who greets you by saying “Namasté” is in effect saying, “the goodness in me acknowledges and honors the goodness in you.” And that applies to everyone we meet. It’s not a matter of applying this to only “good people,” because Buddhism teaches that everyone we meet has all the same goodness that is in us, regardless of their faults and failures. It’s almost as if it is the reverse of our Christian idea of fallenness—when I see anyone doing something I detest, I must acknowledge that I am just as fallen and therefore have the capacity to do the same things. Buddhists turn that around and honor the goodness in everyone
When you have that kind of mindset about other people, it changes the way you relate to people. In a very real sense, when you can recognize and honor the goodness in others, you are recognizing and honoring the fact that we all belong to one another.[3] Much as the Apostle Paul talks about the church being the body of Christ, and therefore “individually we are members one of another” (Rom. 12:5), which simply means that each of us belongs to one another. St. Paul was talking about the church, and he was still stuck in the mindset of avoiding “the world” as a hostile place.[4] But I think there’s something to be said for applying this idea of a “body” to the whole human family. As beloved children of the one creator God and friends of the one loving redeemer, there is much to point us to the conclusion that we all belong to one another. When that is the case, how can we not acknowledge and honor the goodness in each other? How can we not relate to one another with compassion and kindness?
This mindset changes the way you live, and in a very real sense, it changes you. It reminds me again of St. Paul talking about being “transformed by the renewing of your mind” so that you may discern the will of God. What could be more appropriate to the will of God than relating to everyone you meet in a way that expresses God’s compassion for us all!
But what does all this have to do with the original question of where we look for God? I think one of the things that happens to you when you begin to relate to everyone you encounter with God’s compassion is that you begin to become aware that God’s compassion is constantly surrounding us all. We find the answer to the question where to look for God in the way we relate to one another. As it turns out, loving other people is what it means to know and love God. Sounds biblical, doesn’t it!
When we look at everyone we encounter as a beloved brother or sister, and recognize that all the goodness in us is also present in them, we find that God is there. When we relate to the people around us with compassion, we find God’s compassion surrounding us all. That’s where we look for God. Not in the busyness of a big church, or in some supernatural experience, but in ordinary, everyday compassion towards other people. We find God’s love waiting for us in a hug from a friend or in the embrace of a child or a parent. We find God’s love waiting for us in the satisfaction of a good day’s work with friends. We find God’s love waiting for us as we extend ordinary compassion to another human being who is hurting—for whatever reason. When we offer simple respect and kindness to those we meet, we find God who is constantly surrounding us with compassion.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/21/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Ram Dass, in Grist for the Mill, explains it this way: “In India when we meet and part we often say, ‘Namaste,’ which means I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honor the place in you of love, of light, of truth, of peace. I honor the place within you where if you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us.”Cited in a review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, accessed at id=19335 .
[3] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian,181: Buddism teaches us to respond to the moment “with the wisdom of feeling your connectedness with everyone and everything, and then respond with the compassion that naturally results when you feel so connected.” Cf. also ibid., 202-203.
[4] So much is this the case that it influences even one so astute as Karl Barth to adopt a similar outlook. Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:713-14. Cf. also Robert Jewett, Romans, 744.

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