Monday, January 17, 2011

Preached by the Rev. Canon John Kilgore at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, January 17, 2011
“Look, here is the Lamb of God!”

This is an interesting scene in John’s gospel. This first chapter of John is about declaring who Jesus is and then Jesus assembling his team, if you will. It starts out, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…’ but then quickly goes into the story of John the Baptist. Our gospel reading today starts at verse 29 but in verse 19, just before, John is being interrogated by priests and Levites from Jerusalem who ask him who he is. They want to know if he is the Messiah, Elijah, or a prophet. He responds, ‘no that is not me, I am just pointing the way.’ John was a herald in fact. So verse 29 begins, ‘The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”’ This is Him, The One. Not me. Him.

The Lamb of God. There are a lot of names for Jesus. Handel’s Messiah, which we heard just a few weeks ago, summarizes those names well, ‘wonderful, counselor, mighty God, the Prince of Peace.’ Also Emmanuel meaning God is with us. But Lamb of God is a popular epithet for Jesus. Many of our symbols in the Church, much art, and writings portray Jesus as the Lamb of God.

That is very apt, as lambs are soft, gentle, trusting, nonaggressive, and nonviolent. Young children are like that, gentle, trusting, nonaggressive, and nonviolent. It is when children grow up that the less desirable qualities come to the fore. Scientifically the rudimentary part of our brains, which we share with the reptiles and lower animals, are wired for survival. Feeding, fighting, fleeing, and reproduction are basic instincts bequeathed to us by the reptiles and rooted in the base of the brain, the hypothalamus. The ‘all about me’, the survival part of the brain. But that is a very small part of our brain. The neocortex, most of the space of our brain, is about higher cognitive function, reasoning, and emotion. We are wired for this fight or flight response to assure our survival. But we are also wired for compassion and love and thoughtful subjugation of our basic survival impulses. Yet these two tendencies, for survival and compassion exist in tension.

This has been a very difficult week in our country. An assassination attempt on a member of Congress, Gabrielle Giffords, the murder of six individuals including a federal judge, and the wounding of thirteen others in Tucson last Saturday has dominated the news. And much of the media discourse, of which there has been a tremendous amount, has been about the polarization of our society and the meanness of our politics today. The right wing media and Sarah Palin, the vitriolic diatribes on talk television and radio have been blamed for fostering an attitude in society that is responsible for such heinous acts as the Tucson shootings. And there are now calls for a softening of our approach to each other. As I was driving to the Cathedral this morning I heard letters to the editor on NPR. Someone said, ‘People on both the left and the right are saying outrageous things. Name calling doesn’t help.’ Yes, the meanness is on both the left and the right. And name calling doesn’t help.

There was a piece on CNN a couple of days ago where they showed the seating in Congress and described how the Democrats always sit on one side and the Republicans always sit on the other side. Across the aisle. They are divided. There is a rapidly growing movement for the members of Congress to mix up the seating, abandon the traditional seating and all sit intermixed, Democrats and Republicans next to each other during the State of the Union address next week. It’s about time for compassion to resurface there, and among us.

We live in a difficult and dangerous world: passions are inflamed around the globe, there is an imbalance of wealth, an imbalance of power, terrorism abounds, the Arab/Israeli conflict, Christian/Muslim tension, India/Pakistan, North Korea/South Korea, Democrat/Republican, liberal/conservative. And we can be mean one to another unintentionally in the course of our daily lives.

A recent book out, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong gives a recipe for living a more compassionate life. In the first chapter she writes, “One of the chief tasks of our time must surely be to build a more global community in which all peoples can live together in mutual respect; yet religion, which should be making a major contribution, is seen as part of the problem. All faiths insist that compassion is the test of true spirituality and that it brings us into relation with the transcendence we call God, Brahman, Nirvana, or Dao. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes call the Golden Rule, ‘Do not treat others as you would not like them to treat you’ or in its positive form, ‘Always treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.’ Further, they all insist that you cannot confine your benevolence to your own group; you must have concern for everybody – even your enemies.”

She goes on to write, ‘In a world where small groups will increasingly have powers of destruction hitherto confined to the nation-state, it has become imperative to apply the Golden Rule globally, ensuring that all peoples are treated as we would wish to be treated ourselves. If our religious and ethical traditions fail to address this challenge, they will fail the test of our time.’ Her book has twelve chapters on living the compassionate life.

You can read her book and gain insight into living today. But you can also read our book, the Bible, and gain much insight from our teacher, Jesus, the Lamb of God. Jesus, in his life and actions, shows us time and again the way to be compassionate. Turn the other cheek he says, forgive your brother or sister not seven times but seven times seventy, let the one without sin cast the first stone. And He gave us instructive parables: the parable of the Good Samaritan, the parable of the Prodigal Son, as well as the admonition ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

Making a difference in the world involves living a compassionate life and it all begins right here…with you and me. Fostering a culture of compassion and nonviolence. There is a bumper sticker that reads ‘Think globally, act locally’. It begins right here with each and every one of us. Mahatma Gandhi said that we must ourselves become the change that we wish to see in the world. The fight or flight part of our brain is in conflict with the compassionate rational and emotive part of our brain. It is our challenge to live into compassionate lives as Jesus the Christ dramatically showed us, and as all other faith traditions promote.

It starts with overcoming the idea of ‘other’. We are all we. It is not liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans, black and white, gay and straight, South county and North county, city and county St. Louis, eight o’clockers and 1115’ers. We are all children of God. Perhaps we should erase all labels! We are all we.

In her wonderful book Uncommon Gratitude – Alleluia for All That Is Joan Chittister talks about having been in Russia, then the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War and the feeling of ‘otherness’ that she experienced officially. Yet the people were always individually warm to her as a foreigner. She then laments that the Cold War is over but the enemies have changed, “Russia, we have decided, is no longer our enemy. We have uncocked our missiles and torn up our propaganda pieces and turned our sites on other ‘others.’ Now more likely targets. Now more sustainable enemies. Now more politically advantageous opponents. Now we find ‘other’ in men, in women, in gays, in Arabs, in liberals, in conservatives…We look for differences and call them ‘bad’ rather than simply ‘different.’ But ‘otherness’ is an alleluia gift of great measure that takes us out of ourselves, beyond ourselves, into the best of ourselves. Being open to the ‘other’ expands our vision of the world…The ‘other’ is the one who teaches us that we are not the whole world. We are only a piece of it waiting for the ‘Other’ to make us more than we were when we began. Alleluia.”

We can get rid of the labels and not be black or white or conservative or Arab or Jew, but life would be pretty monotonous. Or we can celebrate our differences and say alleluia that such diversity exists. It is said that America is no longer a melting pot but rather now a salad bowl. What a great analogy. We need the lettuce and the carrots and the radishes and onions and peppers and dressing and crouton. We need all the parts. But we must exist in harmony and treat each individual with compassion and respect. We don’t blend it into a slaw or a soup. All the parts recognizable. Remember that in our Baptismal Covenant we promise to respect the dignity of every human being. Every. So we either need to get over the idea of ‘other’ or respect it.

And after we overcome the idea of ‘other’ we are to continue with guarding our behavior from mean and violent words and actions, even those we do so habitually without thought – our survival part of our brain struggling with the compassionate major portion of our brain. My work as a physician here the past twenty-five years has been mostly in the SSM Healthcare system. Based on the values of the nuns that run the healthcare system, they have a strong commitment to avoiding the use of violent language and to using inclusive language. In meetings when we discuss strategy we do not use terms like clobber the competition, beat them up, massacre. We don’t have targets but rather audiences or objectives. Power point presentations do not have bullet points but rather dot points. It is amazing how often we have to correct ourselves for using violent language, but also amazing how easy it is to find alternative wording. Just Friday an executive said in a meeting with me, ‘It is time for us to pull the trigger on this decision…’ He immediately stopped, apologized, and said, ‘We have to make a timely decision here.’

Tolerance of differences, compassion for others, and gentleness in our dealings. What a way to live. May we be so worthy. We have great examples of leaders who remind us of tolerance and compassion. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. Thankfully now a national holiday when we celebrate a great leader who advocated nonviolence and helped us get better in our thinking of ‘otherness’. We are all one. Race relations in this country and South Africa for example have come a long way, but still have a very long way to go. Getting over our ‘otherness’ is very much Christian, and in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Another great example was Jesus, the Lamb of God. Gentle and kind though still demanding. We are to follow his example and be gentle and tender one with another. When we raise our voice at someone, are demeaning to another, cast aspersions or make ugly comments about someone we are not living the compassionate life. When we are condescending or self-righteous we are less than Jesus models for us. Remember that on the night he was betrayed, when they came for him in the garden a guard’s ear was sliced off. And Jesus fully well knowing that he was going to be crucified, healed the guard’s ear. That’s compassion.

Yes becoming a compassionate human being is a project, a process, a lifelong project. And takes work. But it begins with a daily effort and how we talk to one another. Martin Luther King called for nonviolence along with action and reflection, as did Gandhi and others. Congress is planning to sit with Republicans and Democrats next to one another rather than across the aisle.

We must learn how to talk to one another, not over one another or down to one another, but to each other, civilly. May we as the Church lead the country. May we as individuals lead the Church and the community. It begins with us in our daily encounters – compassion, nonviolence and respect for the dignity of every human being. Every. No exceptions. Every.

And when we live that way they will say, ‘Look Here is Lamb of God!’ Thanks be to God.


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