Compassion in Community

(sermon 7/2/17)

meal

2 Kings 6:8-23

Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he took counsel with his officers. He said, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Take care not to pass this place, because the Arameans are going down there.” The king of Israel sent word to the place of which the man of God spoke. More than once or twice he warned such a place so that it was on the alert. The mind of the king of Aram was greatly perturbed because of this; he called his officers and said to them, “Now tell me who among us sides with the king of Israel?” Then one of his officers said, “No one, my lord king. It is Elisha, the prophet in Israel, who tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedchamber.”

He said, “Go and find where he is; I will send and seize him.” He was told, “He is in Dothan.” So he sent horses and chariots there and a great army; they came by night, and surrounded the city. When an attendant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. His servant said, “Alas, master! What shall we do?” He replied, “Do not be afraid, for there are more with us than there are with them.” Then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. When the Arameans came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, and said, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city; follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria. As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men so that they may see.” The Lord opened their eyes, and they saw that they were inside Samaria. When the king of Israel saw them he said to Elisha, “Father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” He answered, “No! Did you capture with your sword and your bow those whom you want to kill? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink; and let them go to their master.” So he prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way, and they went to their master. And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.

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Back in my days as an architect, I had a business associate, a commercial real estate leasing agent named Don. For twenty years, Don and I shared business leads back and forth. We also shared a lot of our business and personal ups and downs. We were there to congratulate each other on the birth of our kids, and shared in the joys and challenges as they grew up. Don was a valued business associate, but he was more than that – he was also a dear and valued friend.

Don was an extreme go-getter, Type-A personality. He was passionate about his work and everything else in life. He was constantly smiling; an eternal optimist; you almost never saw him down. And he could talk to anyone, about anything, any time. He could find some connection with you and draw on that, and encourage you, and build you up. That kind of personality is almost literally gold in the business world. It was a gift that I could only dream of having.

Of all of his really amazing qualities, though, his driving wasn’t always one of them. Consistent with his supercharged personality, Don never met a speed limit he couldn’t beat by twenty or thirty miles per hour. Multiple lanes of busy traffic were seen as a challenge – a personal slalom course for him to navigate as he tried to get to wherever the first and the fastest. One morning, Don was driving on the highway between his home and the office, on his way to work. He was undoubtedly in the hottest, newest BMW of the time. Those seemed to be a weakness of his; I always envied him for the great cars that he drove. But on this day, Don encountered another driver like himself – and before you knew it, the two were engaged in what I’ll just politely call “competitive highway driving.” At some point in all of this, Don was even nudging the other guy’s car with his own, trying to get him to do what he wanted. Eventually, the two of them pulled off to the side of the road. The other driver got out of his car, loaded for bear, spitting mad, yelling and screaming at Don, just itching for a fight. Don, for his part, just stayed calm as he listened to the man. He took it all in stride, and then, with a calm and friendly demeanor, he said “Yes, you’re right, I was being a jerk – in fact, we both were; we both got carried away, we let our egos get the better of us. What we were doing was wrong, and dangerous. We’re both better than that. Of course, I’ll pay for whatever damage I did to the side of your car.”

As the man had started to calm down, Dan started to chat with him. Asked him what he did for a living, who he worked for. As they were exchanging information, Don said “Oh, your last name is _____? I know someone with that same name, ________; do you know them?” “Yes, he’s a relative.” “Oh, well if you know him, you probably know _______, too.” “Yes, in fact we went to school together; I was just talking to them a few days ago.” And on and on. By the time they were done talking, the man was at ease, and smiling, and the two of them even laughed at the situation. When they were done, the two of them shook hands and parted ways. Now if this were a perfect story, Don would have ended up leasing the man some office space. That didn’t happen, but I’m sure that he at least had tried to line up a showing.

That incident came to mind again when I read today’s sermon text. This story deals with the prophet Elisha – who is not to be confused with his mentor, the prophet Elijah. In this story, the king of Aram – the king of the Aramean people – is having constant setbacks on the battlefield in his war against the Israelites, and he’s enraged when he’s told that it’s been Elisha, with his direct line to God, who has been advising the king of Israel regarding where the Arameans would be and what their plans were. So he sends troops to capture, or maybe kill, Elisha; they surround the city he’s living in. But as you heard, Elisha asks God to temporarily, partially blind the soldiers. Then, in a classic bit of scriptural orneriness, Elisha tells the soldiers “Oh no, the man you’re looking for isn’t here; this is the wrong town. But I know where he is; here, let me take you to him!” And he leads the Arameans to Samaria – a city that’s stongly fortified by Israelite troops. And then, once they’re there, the Arameans’ sight is restored, they see that they’re completely surrounded and hemmed in.

At this point, the king of Israel, as excited as a kid who wants to tear into his presents on Christmas morning, asks Elisha “Can I kill them?!! Can I kill them?!!!” It made sense. God had brought the enemies of Israel right into the palm of their hand. Surely, God would want them to finish them off. But contrary to what anyone would think, Elisha says no, don’t kill them. In fact, don’t just refrain from killing them – throw them a party. Prepare a big banquet, lay out a feast for them. So that’s what they did. I can only imagine the conversations among the soldiers from the two armies had at that meal. Telling one another where they were from; what they did for a living when the king wasn’t sending them off to war. Showing one another pictures on their phones of their wives, their kids, their pets. Complaining about their king, and taxes, and the lack of rain for the crops. And after it was over, the Arameans were granted safe passage home, and the passage says that they ended their hostilities against the Israelites.

Elisha had instructed the king to do, by way of a common meal, and being compassionate in community with the Arameans, the same basic thing that Don had done out along the roadside – to not just defuse a tense, dangerous situation, but to actually turn it into something positive and constructive.

There’s something universal, something that cuts across all cultures and all times, about the sharing of a common meal. There’s something almost magical in the way that a meal can bring about healing and reconciliation, and create a sense of community. And since the gospel – God’s good news of compassion for all people – is primarily enacted in the world through forgiveness and community, it seems only natural that one of the most sacred expressions of our faith is the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper – a remembrance of God’s faithfulness and compassion, seen through the reenactment and continuation of an eternal, communal meal.

Since we’re continuing to examine God’s compassion this Sunday, we should recognize that reality – that God’s compassion is primarily enacted in the world through radical forgiveness and being in community; in contrast to the opposing attitude of trying to earn God’s compassion through personal acts of would-be holiness and self-righteousness, and concentrating on individualism instead of community.

That’s important for us to remember, because our society has almost always had a strong emphasis on individualism. We’ve sung the praises of the rugged individualist; the one who settled the frontier, the captain of industry, the self-made man who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, who got everything he had by his own hands, who didn’t get any help from anyone and who didn’t owe anything to anyone else. We need to recognize that these attitudes are completely contrary to the kind of community accountability and responsibility that Christ himself has called us to. As our society has evolved, we’ve placed an unhealthy – and I’ll suggest, an immoral, and even sinful – emphasis on individualism over the importance of community, and communal accountability to and responsibility for, one another. And you don’t need to go any further than the evening news, and the ongoing debates over how, or even whether, we have any responsibility for providing healthcare for people in this country, or affirming equal rights and equal protection under the law, to see examples of this ongoing battle to balance individualism and community responsibility in our society.

Our excessive focus on individualism has shaped a lot of American Christianity, too, and usually not for the better. It’s partly why there are so many different denominations – individualists set their own rules and feel no accountability to the rest of a community when there’s any disagreement; they can just go off and start their own church. It’s also why there’s so much emphasis in parts of the church about Jesus being someone’s personal Lord and Savior, minimizing the essential community aspect of the faith. It’s why you hear so many people say they can be a Christian but not be part of a church family.  It’s why there are so many Christian songs full of references to “I” and “Me,” versus “Us” and “We.”

As we look at how we’re supposed to live as God’s people, in both church and society, we have to recognize the high importance that God places on being in community – and that that community has to be as broad as possible. It has to include people who are different from us. People who look different. Who think different. Who vote different. Who live different, who love different, who worship different. And as Elisha showed us, it even has to include people we consider our enemies. Being in *that* kind of community is how God’s compassion breaks into the world, and into people’s lives. That’s how God shows a better alternative to a world where otherwise, Don and the other driver would have ended up in a fistfight, and the Arameans would have been slaughtered.

Being in that kind of community with others isn’t always easy. In fact, most of the time, it’s downright hard. But part of the good news for us in all of this is that we know that God does actually empower us and enable us to be able to model that kind of community, and to extend it beyond ourselves and out into the world – whether that ends up being somewhere  literally at a meal around a table; or in the workplace; or at school; or in the neighborhood – or even along the side of the road.

Thanks be to God.

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