It was 6am this past Monday at your local YMCA, somewhere between the rowing machines and the treadmills, when Tony waved me over: “I have something I wanted to ask you — some of us were talking about it, and you’ll know, cause you’re a minister.” It’s not my favorite conversation starter. This is the kind of thing that makes a minister wear headphones at the gym. Nevertheless, my friend Tony asked: “Can you tell me, what is Lent… just in twenty words or less?”
I’ll let you guess how successful I was at this challenge. “Always be prepared,” 1 Peter urges, “To give an answer to anyone that asks you about the hope that you have.” But an elevator speech on Lent? How concise or hopeful can that be? I began talking about how Lent is a traditional Christian practice that began in the fourth century. Since Easter Sunday was a time of baptism for new Christians, Lent became a time of preparation for those new members and for the entire community of faith as they approached the Easter vigil.
Well, that pretty well killed the curiosity, so then I began to wonder what I might have said. I could have talked about repentance — how we drape our sanctuary in purple, the color of repentance and forgiveness, believing that before we come to the resurrection of Christ we must confess our own sins and all that separates us from the way of Jesus.
I could have made sure to explain how the 40 weekdays of Lentcorrespond to many biblical events, especially the 40 days of Jesus’ own temptation in the wilderness. Lent, therefore, is a time to remember who we are amidst all that would draw us away from that.
Or maybe if I really wanted to energize the workout crew, I could have talked about how we enter Lent with amark of ash on our foreheads, reminding that we are but ashes and dust, facing our mortality and impermanence, understanding the fragility of life and seeking to be deliberate and intentional in all that we do.
All of these rambling explanations are true. But, then, none of them really get to my friend’s question. Because it’s a deeper question: What is the substance of Christian faith? What does it all mean? What does it all do? And that’s a question we want answered not primarily in a house of worship, but in the places people live and breathe and study and play and work and workout — not in the sanctuary on Sunday as much as the cardio room Monday morning.
It’s a question we’re asking along with the Epistle to the Colossians this Lent. Our Lenten theme, “Clothed in Christ,” is inspired by this letter to an ancient church. It’s a church Paul didn’t plant or establish, but a church that was facing challenges and opposing philosophies Paul knew well. The letter is written to urge them to remain devoted to Jesus, and especially to remember the new way of life made possible through the resurrection of Christ. Through the power of Christ, Colossians says, we have a “new humanity.” We can be different kinds of people, and not just in the future when Christ is fully exalted, but now in real human situations in the places we live and move and influence. We don’t have to wait. We can live out our hope for the future, when “Christ is all and is in all” as the letter says, right now in the present.
So, in chapter 3 Colossians says, “Clothe yourselves” in this new humanity, this new life of love made possible through Christ. The letter then lists virtues of this life in Christ: “compassion, kindness, humility, endurance, patience, forgiveness as the Lord forgave you… and above all put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
Clothe yourselves in these attributes of Christ. Through the power of the Spirit, live in such a way as though they are draped about you. Rather than penitence, repentance, or sacrifice alone this Lent, we’re seeking to be proactive. Rather than giving things up only, we’re hoping to put things on. Clothing ourselves. Taking on the marks of new life, rather than only setting the old things down. We’re encouraged this season to live in such a way where the new life of Christ is known in this world.
It calls to mind that axiom, “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” These are famous words attributed to St. Francis of Assissi, though Dr. Steve Sumerel pointed out this week that most of those knowledgeable in Franciscan history do not think he ever said this, at least not in this way. A more accurate quote, Steve pointed out, is: “It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.” Steve made this observation at the memorial service for beloved church member and saint, Rev. Joe McLean, who passed away last week and whose blessed memory we celebrated on Friday. We remembered in Joe, as in his wife Betsy, what it is for your walking, your movement through this world — your impact in all the places you go, however gentle and humble — to give witness to new life in Christ, because it marks you. It clothes you. What could it mean for us all to live such a way, putting on this new life of love and all its virtues?
This week in worship, we are especially focused on the first of these attributes of Christ and Christ’s people: Clothe Yourselves in Compassion.
Compassion, from the Latin “co-suffering” literally “to suffer with.” It’s a theme so evident in the life of Jesus, and in the cross that is ever before us in this season of Lent.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing amidst the horrific suffering of Nazi-controlled Germany and humanity’s great calamity of the holocaust, addressed the notion prominent in Christian thought that God must be all-powerful and beyond human frailty. “No,” Bonhoeffer said, “Only a suffering God can help.” A loving God is a suffering God. It’s as the author Nora Gallagher, observed, when she once asked a counselor friend her advice on how to love. The wise friend said, “If you want to love, you must enlarge your capacity to suffer.” Because to love is to suffer.
And so we see in the person of Jesus one, in very nature God, who humbles himself to walk alongside a suffering world, winding the path of his life always to those who are stretching and straining for something more. He’s found sitting at table with them, welcoming them, offering a humanizing touch and a healing word, sharing in their lives. He follows this road in proximity to human suffering even as it leads into the city of Jerusalem, knowing he would find there those that would render him dust. And so he proclaims with his death his full identification with a suffering humanity. Compassion. “To suffer with.” And so God in Christ did. And so God in Christ does
It’s one of the definitive enduring qualities of the life of Jesus, and it’s one that Jesus believes can be present in the lives of his followers. “Love as I have loved you,” he says on the final night of his life. Feel with, suffer with, be with one another. Clothe yourselves in compassion.
That’s why throughout the gospels we see the phrase, “moved with compassion” before many stories of healing and redemption. Jesus is described as moved literally down in the depths of himself. “Moved with compassion,” he looks on the crowd as sheep without a shepherd. “Moved with compassion,” he reaches out to touch a leper who comes to him from the very margins of his ancient world. “Moved with compassion.” But it’s not only Jesus, but others who display this quality in the gospels, as we hear in one of his best-loved parables of a father and sons: “So the son set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
Parables are meant to find us right where we live and move. In describing the kingdom of God, Jesus never asks people to leave their world. He gives familiar settings, characters we know, scenes we’ve lived in, family dynamics we’ve experienced. As he does in this story with a sibling rivalry as old as Cain and Able, Jacob and Esau. Younger son and older son, with a father in between. We know this story. And that’s the power of parables — finding us in our fixed expectations, and then with surprises or twists helping us to twist ourselves. Pro,pting us to reimagine our world, and our places within it, just as this parable helps us to understand anew the compassion we are urged to put on.
Compassion never gives upon people, the parables reminds. In a world of so many disposable, compassion insists we stop throwing them away, even if it seems they’ve blown their best chances. This son had said to his father, “Give me my inheritance,” which wasn’t done while a head of household was living. The younger son is essentially saying to his father, “Dad, you are better off to me dead.” And the father responds in turn, dividing among his sons his “bios” the text says. “Bios” from which we take “biology.” The son says, “drop dead.” And the father divides his bios…his very life!
The son had cast off his father, but as the lost son makes his way home, the story is so utterly clear: his father sees him, “while he was still way far off.” Bookkeeping, farming, advanced planning, he hasn’t been doing any of these tasks essential to the household. He’s been doing something that takes precedence over them all: he’s been watching for his son. He sees his son. He recognizes what others might not. When the boy is but a silhouette against the sky, the father sees him. He sees his slowed but still familiar gate before he comes into full clarity of view. While he was still far off, his father sees, because compassion never gives up on people.
In the same way, compassion pursues. This father takes off, hiking up his skirts to run down the path as the door slams behind him. Then a rapid staccato of action: moved with compassion, he falls on his neck, and kisses him again and again. No testing of the son. No questions asked. The father cuts him off mid apology speech with an extravagant welcome and celebration.
And as the story continues in Act 2, he acts similarly toward his elder son, filled with his understandable anger out in the field. But the father, again, pursues one of his sons. This is a father that goes out to both of his children, the parable tells us. He pleads with the elder. He even entreats him with a term of such endearment – “my dear child.” Because compassion always goes out to people.
And compassion defies expectation. Understand, that in the ancient world of this parable, by most accounts, fathers were detached, authoritative, conscious of hierarchy, and defensive of their honor. Children came to them, not the other way around. This father so defies convention that the parables scholar Bernard Brandon Scott has said by first century standards he was more like a mother than a father. Fathers don’t give away the inheritance, as though they are dead. Fathers don’t wait at the kitchen window for days at a time. Fathers don’t hike up their skirts. Fathers don’t pursue. Fathers don’t fall down in a mess of emotion. But this father does.
And Jesus is telling us something of this kind of compassion, that prompts his followers to defy convention and limit, discard the weights of expectations they’ve carried all these years in favor of a bold new story of unrestricted love, complete with all its pursuit, and persistent waiting, and extravagant giving.
Because such compassion changes the ending. Jesus leaves an open ending in this parable so that we must finish the story for ourselves. Younger son, older son, and we can easily imagine a third scene. Jesus’ early listeners probably would have imagined it, too — an inevitable conflict on the horizon. For, one day, the father will be gone. And it will just be two brothers and between them an inheritance is there to be claimed. You can imagine the rest of that story. You’ve heard the tale before. As old as Cane and Abel, Jacob and Esau… and you know how it ends. Sons can’t be expected to divide between them that which the father leaves behind Children wouldn’t believe there was enough of their father’s great resources to go around. There’s only one way to settle this – collision and conflict, where the last one standing claims the prize. And in the ancient world, one or both of these children would probably end up dead.
Unless, of course, they change the ending, which they might just do if they can remember the one who did the same for them. At some point, they might remember the compassion of their father, how his love defied all the limits they had known, how willing he was to shed the weight of those expectations to demonstrate his affection for them. Maybe they pause, in that moment and remember the one that did what most fathers don’t do: his kiss, his gaze, his pursuit, his bare legs and awkward run as he hiked up his skirts and ran.
What would happen if they remembered it? What would happen if weremembered it? The watching, the running, the wide embrace, the unrestricted compassion of the one who pursues us still? It might invite us into a new kind of life. It might make us different kinds of people. It might even help us imagine and embody a kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
I saw something of this compassion this weekend. I have to admit, I’m a bit exhausted today — and not just because of Daylight Savings Time (Let us pray for all of those who slept in today). But I’m emotionally exhausted, I mean. Monday of this week, the young adult brother of one of my dearest friends died tragically, and yesterday I went to Knoxville to lead his funeral. With every bend of the winding route of 1-40 over the mountain, there was a rattling in my center console. It was the casing of a blank from the shots fired at the 21 gun salute at the funeral Thursday of Warren Bass — WWII veteran, of the storied greatest generation. His nephew, Billy, had eyed the bullet casings as they fell from the Honor Guard rifles, and gathered them up, passing them around as mementos, and one ended up in my center console as this rattling reminder of the stark dichotomies of this life: remembering 97 year old Warren’s funeral on Thursday while driving to 27 yr old Ben’s service on Saturday.
The grief was as deep and inutterable as you can imagine. Breath to breath. Moment to moment. No words, really, only the cries the Psalmist describes when our hearts are overwhelmed. And this was especially true for Ben’s mother.
Still, amidst it, there was a remarkable, compassionate, healing presence: Ben’s grandmother. His mother’s mother. She lives in Florida. She’s a wheelchair user with health challenges late in her life. She’s not supposed to travel. But she’d cast that off and made the trip. She knew that she, of all people, could reach her daughter and comfort her famoily. So tenderly, quietly, steadily she kept saying, “You are doing what you have to do. You are doing what you have to do. And I am right here with you. And we’ll do it together. We’ll do it together.”
Suffering with. Feeling with. Maybe you know what kind of difference such love makes — the love that always comes for us, always pursues us, always reaches us, never gives up on us, defies all the expectations. That kind of love can change the ending. And so it has for each of us.
“You are now God’s chosen and beloved,” Colossians says. Because the love of Christ changes everything. Therefore:“Clothe yourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, endurance, patience, forgiveness… Above all put on love, binding all together in perfect unity.”
That’s twenty words, but it’s everything this world needs to know.