I had the indescribable privilege this past week of journeying to Assisi, home of St. Francis, for an international and interfaith gathering of religious leaders. We were there at the invitation of the global lay Catholic organization, The Community of Sant’ Egidio, and our theme was “Thirst for Peace.” We listened to each other’s perspectives on panels about so many issues related to peace and well-being – on the refugee crisis and the call to religious communities and to nations to offer hospitality, on the poverty that is both a source and a result of conflict. One panel was titled simply, “Save Aleppo!” On our last evening together, we separated into our various religious communities to say our prayers for peace with our own integrity – Shinto, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh – and then each community processed from its place of prayer to a central piazza, where we affirmed our shared, faith-driven commitment to peacemaking, signing a single statement. People who “shouldn’t” literally be “on the same page”, not to mention on the same stage, signed their names together – chief rabbis from Israel and Turkey and ayatollahs from Iran and imams from Iraq; bishops, pandits, and imams from Pakistan alongside leaders from five faiths in India. Pope Francis was with us, and his mere presence was so encouraging, so emboldening for all of us. Add to that his words, which with kindness but also such spiritual power urged us to be relentless and audacious in our work for peace, compromising on nothing, and all for the sake of suffering humanity whom God loves so infinitely. He exhorted us to “become open to God and to our brothers and sisters. God asks this of us, calling us to confront the great sickness of our time: indifference. It is a virus that paralyzes, rendering us lethargic and insensitive, a disease that eats away at the very heart of religious fervor, giving rise to a new and deeply sad paganism: the paganism of indifference. We cannot remain indifferent.”
Paralyzed, lethargic, insensitive – yes, humans in every culture and spiritual community do shut down, turn away, and take comfort in comfort in the face of the suffering of others. Francis’ address concerned some of the most glaring conflicts today, and the turning away of the faces of our local and international communities, but he was addressing a problem as old as the human family ourselves. Many centuries before the common era, the prophet Amos wrote of people of privilege who basked in the comforts they could afford and who paid no heed whatsoever to the devastations around them. They could choose to, but they did not. They chose to focus on the lovely things that they could afford to surround themselves with – delicious, gourmet food, beautiful furniture, expensive tickets to the most high-status arts performances. Cost was not a consideration in their health and beauty regimens; they relaxed and lounged at every opportunity, de-stressing with spa treatments, private memberships, and all the things that helped them feel balanced. (I bet I’m not the only person in this sanctuary who thinks this sounds pretty good.) This lifestyle was good, and it was used by comfortable persons in Zion and Samaria – the southern and northern kingdoms of ancient Israel – to insulate themselves from the suffering going on in their midst. Amos’ words are profoundly challenging, and not simply to those who do know that they are part of an economically elite stratum. He is pointing out the ways that all of us turn our faces away from those who suffer, starting with someone like me who stands up to name it in a sermon. Amos knows very well that, as some faculty and clergy will also admit, simply specializing in a particular subject does not mean that you are part of its solution! The Pope knows that, and so he preached his heart out to a piazza full of global religious leaders. He is a humble man, so he was also preaching to himself.
From our gospel passage for today, we have such a well-known example of indifference. For years, a rich man left his literally gated community and stepped over the same human being lying in the gutter. He saw Lazarus there, and so each day, he lifted his designer robes so that Lazarus’ oozing sores wouldn’t get pus on his lovely fabric. But he didn’t see Lazarus at all – a human being, a child of God, of infinite worth, someone whose suffering he could ease by bringing him into his home even briefly, giving him a bed, bandaging his sores, and giving him nutritious food. He had it all to spare. Even after death, when they are separated by the chasm between heaven and hell, the rich man doesn’t see Lazarus. He doesn’t see a human being of infinite value; he sees a tool, an instrument, in easing his own suffering. He tells Abraham to command Lazarus to cool his tongue. Then he tells Abraham to command Lazarus (to whom he wouldn’t stoop to speak) to go back to earth and warn his five brothers about the possibility of hell. Again, Lazarus is just a nameless tool for the rich man to get what he wants for himself. He still doesn’t see Lazarus.
As I reflect on all of this, I find myself thinking that the opposite of indifference is not engagement, it is compassion, because compassion is the holy source of engagement (as opposed to self-interest). Sometimes we meet the needs of those around us to prevent them from bringing down our property value – right action, wrong impulse. It is compassion that needs to be our prompt. It is compassion that is the Christian prompt, not self-interest. The word compassion means “to suffer with.” It points not to a distant empathy with those who suffer but to deep sharing in their suffering, both for the sake of solidarity and then to ease that suffering in the most practical of ways. We may feel empathy, but we don’t have to act on it. When we do, we are exercising compassion.
I’ve suggested that compassion is the holy source of engagement in the realities of those who suffer. Let me now offer the idea that the holy source of compassion itself is, for the Christian, seeing the face of Christ in every human being. I did not come up with this idea myself, I read it in Matthew’s Gospel, the 25th chapter, where Christ himself tells us that when we serve the poor, the incarcerated, the sick, the exposed, the suffering, we serve his own very self. If you are searching for Christ, look no further than the person sitting closest to you now, no further than the person next to you on the train, in class, at work. Look no further than the person asking for money on the street. Don’t come up with theories about what she might do with the money you give her, or whether the toddler she’s holding is borrowed for the afternoon – hers is the face of Christ. She is suffering, she is in need. Find out what that suffering really is. We prop up much of our indifference with appeals to our own notions of who are the “worthy” poor, the “worthy” victims of violence or injustice. It influences our responses to killings by and of police, of which there seems to be no end. God help us.
It can hurt – it can be very painful – to let the suffering of others touch us, impact us. Most of us are suffering ourselves in some way, too. If we truly engage with the suffering of others, if we let ourselves feel, if we let ourselves recognize Jesus Christ in the face of others, we really risk being changed. Making ourselves vulnerable to others can hurt. But it is really what we are called, as Christians, to do. Let me conclude by sharing more of Pope Francis’ words to our interfaith assembly last Tuesday in Assisi:
“Prayer and the desire to work together are directed towards a true peace that is not illusory: not the calm of one who avoids difficulties and turns away, if his personal interests are not at risk; it is not the cynicism of one who washes his hands of any problem that is not his; it is not the virtual approach of one who judges everything and everyone using a computer keyboard, without opening his eyes to the needs of his brothers and sisters, and dirtying his hands for those in need. Our path leads us to immersing ourselves in situations and giving first place to those who suffer; to taking on conflicts and healing them from within; to following ways of goodness with consistency, rejecting the shortcuts offered by evil; to patiently engaging processes of peace, in good will, and with God’s help.”