|Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28|
|Psalm 105, 1-6, 16-22, 45b|
Sunday, August 10, 2014
The Genetics of Compassion
A Sermon Preached at All Saints Episcopal Church, Rehoboth Beach
(the Rev'd Dr) Elizabeth Kaeton
Well, there’s no ignoring it, so I won’t. I want to bring your attention to the stained glass window here, behind the altar. I’ll have to verify this later with Fr. Max, but I suspect it’s either a depiction of the Gospel story of Jesus calming the storm (Mark 4:35-41), or, it’s a point in the Gospel story we just heard (Matthew 14:22-33).
It just might be the moment in the story when the disciples thought it was not Jesus but a ghost. Some of them look a bit bewildered and wide-eyed, don’t they? Or, perhaps, they are frightened because the wind has picked up and the waves are beginning to lap at the side of the boat, and there is Jesus, for goodness sake!
Someone at the 8 o’clock service wondered why the hair of the disciples in the boat appears to wind blown and not a hair on the head of Jesus is out of place. I think I know the answer: Hairspray.
Like all good art, it may evoke a variety of emotions and responses in you. So, I’m curious to know – when you look at this window, now, having listened again to the Gospel story of Jesus and Peter, walking on water – what is it you think of?
What thoughts and emotions come up for you as you look at this depiction of the Gospel story? Does it bring you comfort? Or, does it provide you with inspiration? Does it remind you that a life of faith is a matter of knowing your place in the boat? Or does it give you courage to risk and dare stepping out into a dream of your own?
This is a sermon about the genetics of compassion. Yes, compassion.
More often than not, when I look at that window, Sunday after Sunday – or when I steal away into the church in the middle of the week when I am in town and need a bit of a spiritual pick me up before I continue to see the rest of my Hospice patients – I see in the eyes of Jesus, and in the open hand of Jesus, the compassion of Jesus.
This is a sermon about St. Matthew’s Gospel story and the compassion Jesus had for Peter who decided to test his faith by walking on water. I’m going to do that by way of the compassion of the story of Joseph, the son of Leah and Jacob and his scoundrel brothers,
In order to understand the compassion of Joseph and the compassion of Jesus, we must understand the compassion of Jacob, the father of Joseph. In order to understand that compassion, we have to take a wee course in what I call “Biblical Dysfunctional Families 101.”
So, if you think YOUR family is bad, huhboy! Just read the Bible! Scripture is full of dysfunctional families, from the first family of Adam and Eve and their sons, Cain and Able.
So, as we explore the genetics of compassion, I’d like to welcome you, my friends, to the summer, Biblical Soap Opera. (See how many your remember. And, yes, I mean you guys, too. Don’t even try to tell me that you’ve never tuned into a Soap Opera in the middle of the afternoon during the week when you’re home sick or on vacation.).
For, these are the Days of Our Lives of The Young and The Restless,,who follow The Guiding Light in Search for Tomorrow, As The World Turns in the Dark Shadows of The Edge of Night during the Secret Storm of All My Children who have One Life to Live.
Seriously, though, it’s really not too much of a stretch to see these biblical stories as Ancient Soap Operas. In fact, it makes it sort of fun – and a bit more memorable – if you do.
Let’s start with Jacob, bless his heart. He’s the son of Isaac and Rebecca. You remember Isaac, of course. Isaac was the son of Abraham and Sarah. Except, he wasn’t really the firstborn son of Abraham. That would have been Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Sarah’s slave, Haggar – the first recorded surrogate mother.
Ishmael and Haggar were banished into the wilderness because of the jealousy of Sarah. And Isaac was tricked by his father into almost becoming a human sacrifice in a moment that some describe as a test from God and others describe as a moment of religious delusion.
After being freed from this traumatic experience of almost being killed by his father, Isaac goes off and dwells in the wilderness – some Rabbis think he might have sought out the company of his stepmother, Haggar and his half brother Ishmael. After his mother Sarah’s death, his father Abraham sends out his servant to find a proper wife for Isaac.
And lo, Isaac loved Rebekah and they have twin boys, Essau and Jacob.
Jacob – ah, Jacob!, bless his heart – a man so desperate for attention that he was born holding onto his brother Esau’s heel, as if to pull him back into the womb so he could be the first-born son. Then, with a little help from his mother, Rebecca, Jacob stole the blessing of his father, Isaac, from his twin brother.
Essau was his father’s favorite. Jacob was his mother Rebekah’s favorite.
Someone cute the Smother’s Brothers routine: ‘Mom always liked you best.”
So, let me stop here and ask: Can you begin to see a pattern emerging here? Birthright. Trickery and deception? Jealousy. Hatred. Favorite sons? Sibling rivalry? Banishment?
Is any of this sounding even vaguely familiar? I’m remembering a cartoon in the New Yorker which depicted the “Annual Convention of Functional Families.” There was one man on stage and three people in the audience. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?
Okay, back to the story: Because of this trickery and deception, Jacob was estranged from his brother Esau for many years, but he also was, of course the object of some trickery himself. If you remember the story, Jacob really, really wanted to marry Rachael but her father, Laban tricked him into working 7 years for her and then proclaimed that he first had to marry Leah, his firstborn daughter, as was the custom of his clan. If Jacob wanted Rachael he had to work another 7 years for Laban. Which, he did.
When Jacob was finally able to leave Laban with his two wives and family and go back home, he prepared for battle with his brother Esau. We heard about this part of the story last week when Jacob wrestled all night with an angel and came away from that encounter changed and transformed. Not only did he receive a new name, Israel, but he also acquired a permanent limp.
Indeed, the Zohar (the foundational literature of the Kabbalah) says that when Jacob received the name Israel after wrestling the angel, that this was in order to allow Jacob to become attached to the quality of compassion. And, the Talmud teaches that this rachmanim, this quality compassion, is what distinguishes a real Jew. Indeed, the Talmud even goes so far as to say that someone who claims to be a Jew but doesn’t show the quality of compassion is not really a Jew.
Hold that thought. More on this later.
Now, as if your dance card wasn’t already full, there are a few more names to add. In addition to Rachael and Leah, Jacob also had two other wives (although sometimes they are referred to as concubines or maids) Bilhah and Zilpah, They had four sons whose names are Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher . However, the brothers that will be at the center of this morning’s story are rather sons of Leah, particularly Reuben and Judah.
Joseph, of course, is the youngest son of Jacob and Rachael. The woman who was his second wife. The one Jacob wanted to marry first but was tricked into marrying Leah, with whom he had two sons named Reuben and Judah.
Are you beginning to see the unfolding of the genetics of trickery and deception? Can you hear William Shakespeare say, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive?”
The very first thing we learn about Joseph, is that he is a tattletale, a spy sent to tell the father what the other boys are up to! No reason is given for this trait directly – except maybe it has something to do with that whole thing in the Garden (“The snake made me do it!”) – but, the very next sentence may offer insight. "Now Israel (Jacob) loved Joseph more than all of his children, because he was the son of his old age, and he had made him a long-sleeved coat" (Gen 37:3).
What the special garment is, of course, is not at all clear. The KJV named it famously "the coat of many colors”. This morning’s lesson names it a robe with sleeves.
The point is that Jacob has singled out the son of his old age by making for him something that he fails to offer to any of his other sons. Scripture says, “But when his brothers saw that their father (Jacob) loved him (Joseph) more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably to him.”
Yup, you guessed it. Joseph is the “spoiled baby of the family”. Which is richly ironic since his father Jacob was also the younger of the twins but tried to have all the rights and privileges of the first born. I know. Go figure.
The brothers then plot to kill Joseph – not only because he is the favorite son, but also because he seems to have a talent for interpreting dreams. Indeed, they call him “The Dreamer”. Even more notable is that Joseph not only shows off his ability to interpret dreams, but flaunts his coat made especially for him by his father, an outward and visible sign of his favored status with his father. Add “tattletale” to this repertoire, and you can see why his brothers began to scheme and plan for his demise
But Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob and his first wife, Leah, talk them out of killing Joseph; rather, he puts him into a pit where they would later sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. Reuben might have been trying to set himself up, as the firstborn son of this clan, to be the hero with his father, but it may have had something more to do with the fact that he had had sex with one of his father’s maids just a few days before and he needs to be seen more favorably in his father's sight .(Gen 35:22)
I know, right? You can’t make this up!
The trickery, however, seems to have no end; some Midianite traders find Joseph, lift him out of the pit, and sell him to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver. And, they took Joseph to Egypt, where he served as a slave.
The story doesn’t end there, of course. You can read ahead in the chapters in Genesis, and discover that Joseph is Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, all over again. He is his father and grandfather and great grandfather’s son.
Family patterns of trickery and deception and hatred and banishment and abandonment seem to repeat themselves. But, there is one positive characteristic that is also present. Joseph also learns compassion, much in the same way his father Jacob did. He learns it through his own suffering, being in touch with his own humanity, his own faults and failures, his understanding of his own finiteness and mortality and the infinite and unconditional love and compassion of God.
On his way to achieving his dream, Joseph learned some humility. He began to learn something about how God refines us – or, as today’s psalmist writes “until his prediction came to pass, the word of the Lord tested him”. (Psalm 105:19).
Joseph is a dreamer, but he has to go through a refining process in order to achieve his dream.
Many of us discover that truth as we pursue our own dreams. And, in the midst of that refining process, Joseph captures something that is also in his DNA and learns the greatest lesson of all: compassion. Indeed, without compassion for others who are also struggling to live into their dreams, our achievement can deceive us into thinking we made it all on our own.
The truth is that all of our achievements are dependent upon the help of God who helps us through others. There is no such thing as “A Self Made Man”. That’s a myth and an illusion. If we trick ourselves into believing that “we did it by ourselves” we open the door for our own arrogance, and that opens us up to be vehicles of our own brand of trickery and deception.
If we have compassion in our hears for others, it is because we have learned that we can do nothing without the help of God. We may not always see it, it may not always be clearly evident to us, but it is there. God is always stretching out God’s hand to give us a lift out of the messes we create in our lives. Or, as the folks in Twelve Step Programs put it, some times, the only way to begin to ‘bounce back’ is to hit bottom. What we discover is that God is there. At the bottom.
In today’s Gospel, Peter also learns a bit of humility and is refined. He sees Jesus walking on water and seeks to do the same. “Lord,” he says, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Peter actually achieves that dream – at least for a little while – until he noticed that this walking on water thing is a little harder than it looks and he becomes frightened by the strong waves. Peter begins to sink, but Jesus extends his hand and helps him.
Jesus, we believe, is fully human AND fully divine. In this Gospel story – in the midst of the divine ability to walk on water – Jesus displays the compassion that is part of the human genetic make up of his DNA. He is the son of David, and yes, a son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is a man of great compassion.
We all have within us the potential to do evil. We are all capable of petty jealousy and hatred, deception and trickery, duplicity and dishonesty, betrayal and abandonment.
We all have dysfunctional family patterns of relationships. We all have the choice to live our lives in the constant state of the high drama of a soap opera, or to simply live our lives being true to the goodness we also know is part of how God made us.
The key is to explore and examine and learn from all the patterns of our lives – the good and the destructive – and find the patterns in ourselves that lead us to the potential to do great acts of kindness and compassion. And, because we are not helpless victims, we have a choice. God has given us the great gift of free will. We can choose to live out those positive patterns, and live into the genetics of that which is good in each of us.
It’s a choice we can all make. Along the way, we’ll make mistakes. No doubt. That’s part of the cost of free will. We’re not perfect, just free to make choices. But, the other thing that is free is grace. Grace to say, ‘I’m sorry.” Grace to say, “I forgive you.” Grace to say, “Let’s wipe the slate clean and start over.” Grace to find the courage to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, pull up your socks, blow your nose, and begin again.
As St. Paul reminds us in today’s reading from Romans, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” God is as close to us as our next breath. We are not helpless victims. We have been baptized into the royal priesthood of all believers in Christ, Jesus.
There’s a series of billboards around Route One for a local builder that talk about success. My favorite one is “Success does not lead to happiness, happiness leads to success.” I have found that to be true in my own life. When we find that thing that makes us happy – truly happy – and we follow the path that leads to that happiness, success will not be far behind.
It’s important, however, to remember that God does not expect us to be successful. God does not even expect us to be happy. God does expect us to be faithful. And, in being faithful to the goodness we know is in us, we can find our own happiness and our own success.
We cannot hope to bring compassion to the world if we don’t have compassion in our hearts for other people—all of them. We cannot hope to bring peace to the world if we haven’t yet become peace—towards everyone.
When you stake your life on a vision for the way things can be different, it will “keep testing you.” We seem to be tested over and over again these days, in a nightmare news loop from which we never seem to be able to awaken. In Gaza and Ukraine and Iraq. In the Ebola outbreak in Africa. In the Game of Sanctions between the West and Russia. In the unaccompanied children at our border.
It may take years for the vision of God’s compassion and peace and justice and freedom to really awaken inside us, but it’s there, in the DNA of our baptism. Yes, some will argue that we are “miserable offenders” from birth, hopelessly corrupt. Anne Frank once said, “Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart.” I choose to believe that, too.
We have centuries of dysfunctional patterns of behavior and relationships to overcome – in our own families of origin as well as in the human family. But when we do, when the dream of God takes hold in us, when we become the compassion and peace we long for in this world, then we will be truly “living the dream” of our unconditionally loving and compassionate God.