A PRAYER FOR LABOR DAY
A Message based on Matthew 9:35-10:1-4 offered to St. John’s Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC, by Senior Minister, Rev. Dennis Foust, PhD, on September 5, 2021
God of all people, thank you for being especially attentive to persons who are harassed and helpless. We have been taught that you know each person by name. We have read that Jesus was moved with compassion for people who were victimized and humiliated like sheep without a shepherd. As followers of Jesus, we accept his commission to be laborers of compassion for the harvest. However, Lord, please hear our prayer on this Labor Day weekend: we need you to renew us and empower us so we can overcome compassion fatigue. Amen.
Next Saturday, we will, as American citizens, mark two decades since the trajectory of our nation changed. On September 11th, 2001, our nation was attacked by terrorists and we became a people of increased suspicion. From that day until today, citizens of these United States have become more divided over competing visions of our nation’s role in the world. We debate how we should relate with people who are harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Although Emma Lazarus’s poem has been attached to Lady Liberty since 1883, many Americans question whether we should continue to allow the mighty woman with a torch to be the mother of exiles. Some want her to stop proclaiming, “Give me your tired, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
That said, as part of God’s Church in today’s world, we are not united by a vision of America or a poem affixed to the Statue of Liberty. We are united by the spirit of God revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus, the Christ of God. There is no division among us, as the people of St. John’s, as to our vision. Because we follow Jesus in today’s world, we have compassion on people who are harassed and helpless.
However, even God’s people need rest. Since ancient times, the people of God have understood God’s gift of Sabbath – needing one day in every seven to reset the spiritual bio-rhythms of our lives. Jesus often departed to a quiet place and invited each person who is burdened and heavy laden to come to him for rest.
Today’s message is for anyone living in the land of emotional exhaustion. These are very heavy days. Every day, we speak with people who are weary. Some of you are in need of spiritual and emotional renewal.
Just as we thought this pandemic was getting better, people who have not yet been vaccinated put the health of our nation at risk again allowing the Delta variant to unleash havoc. Our healthcare workers are ready to drop. Our nation’s nursing shortage is growing by the day.
Our children cannot yet be vaccinated as this health crisis transcends a third school year. Parents and politicians are allowing their hyper-partisan views to take them down highways of hubris rather than humility. Locally and nationally, teacher shortages are growing.
Stories of rising death tolls and limited ICU beds pile on top of headlines telling of hurricanes, floods, abuses, evacuations, systemic racism, school violence, acts of terrorism, fleeing refugees, global hunger, economic disparity, increasing homelessness and expanding food deserts. However, there are many places in the world where people’s lives are improved – and that’s not just among the top 1%. Most of the crises we confront are not problems that can be easily solved; they are dilemmas demanding creative thought and collaborative approaches. And, each of these dilemmas involve people who are harassed and helpless.
As servant people of God in today’s world, we care about people who are caught up in all these dilemmas. In fact, during times such as these, we can be moved with compassion toward so many people that we experience compassion fatigue. For, as we care for others, we are also living through these dilemmas.
Today’s scripture passage highlights a day when Jesus and the disciples must have been fatigued. Listen to all that was going on: “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and sickness. When Jesus saw all those who continued to approach him with their needs, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus realized there was no way he could meet all their needs alone. So, he told his disciples to pray to the Lord of the harvest for more laborers to be sent out into the vineyard of compassion.
In my imagination, I see those disciples who had been with Jesus as he told them to pray for help. I glance at Simon Peter and he is so tired that he is not offering his usual role of leadership. Andrew is worn out. James and John are propping one another up. Philip and Bartholomew are exhausted. Thomas and Matthew are emotionally drained. All the others are bleary eyed. Even Judas is too tired to balance the checkbook. They were so glad Jesus was asking them to pray for more help.
It is important that Matthew emphasized Jesus being moved with compassion. Some of you will remember that the Hebrew word for compassion stems from the word for ‘womb’ or ‘mother.’ The idea here is that within each human, God has created a place, a womb, to create space for persons who are harassed and helpless.
Jesus really saw those people. He looked at life through their understanding of their needs. To be harassed and helpless describes how Jesus saw them. Their religious and political leaders were not looking out for the good of the people. The people were being victimized, pressured, diminished in value, threatened, demeaned, lied to, humiliated, overpowered, manipulated and their rights were being limited and nullified.
St. John’s, throughout our first century, our church has been moved with compassion. We have not been perfect at this; but we have expressed compassion more times than history has recorded. Last year, in June of 2020, early in the pandemic, we were moved with compassion for our sisters and brothers being victimized by systemic racism and violence. So, we developed a guiding statement.. People who are not moved by the plight of African Americans being harassed and helpless are out of sync with Jesus. Our statement on Racism and Violence begins with these words: “As committed followers of Jesus Christ, the members of St. John’s Baptist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina condemn systemic racism in all its forms and the ways in which it contributes to our problems today. It concludes with these words: Our covenant states, “We will be a servant church, recognizing the infinite worth of every person and believing that Christ has called us to active involvement in behalf of human brotherhood.” Therefore, we strongly condemn the recent violence witnessed across our country, particularly the violence against our African-American brothers and sisters, whose lives matter to us. Our congregation has historically raised its voice and initiated active faith against the systematic injustice in our society. We shall continue our ministries to dismantle injustice, to bring opportunity and dignity to every person, and to explore ways we can do better to create a more just world for every person, regardless of background, skin color, sexual orientation, or faith tradition.”
Beloved, these are more than words to us. We have been expressing compassion for 99 years and six months. Even during this pandemic, we have initiated new ministry groups focused on the needs of Immigrants & Refugees and Social Justice and have taken actions motivated by compassion. Both of these ministry groups will meet in September to plan and expand efforts. This next week, our Mission Resource Team will meet to review how we are continually housing families and individuals living through seasons of homelessness, building houses to end generational poverty, feeding the hungry, building bridges of peace, supporting public education, caring for families under stress, working to improve holistic healthcare in our city, and responding to persons suffering after earthquakes, wildfires, floods and hurricanes in recent days.
In your daily Bible reading, you repeatedly find references to the God of compassion. As followers of Jesus, we are committed to the God of compassion described in 2 Corinthians 1: ‘The God of all compassion comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort other people who are in every kind of trouble. We offer the same compassion that we receive from God.’ You could call Jesus followers, LFC – Laborers for Compassion.
You will not be surprised to learn that scientific research has been studying compassion for decades. Stanford University’s Medical School has now established a Center for Compassion. A study at Emory University showed that compassion training for foster children increases their capacities for hopefulness. Studies at Chapel Hill and UCLA show that people who express compassion as a core value live longer and have less stress. Studies are showing that compassion is universal across all cultures, races and religious traditions. Studies at The University of Virginia show that even witnessing a compassionate act by someone else calls forth compassion in you. Compassion is now being taught in prisons in the United States, Asia and Europe. Medical research shows that when you are motivated by compassion, your heart rate slows down, your brain secretes a bonding hormone named oxytocin and you have an increased desire to care for other people.
Yet, compassion fatigue is real, especially during times such as these. Without realizing it, you can extend your compassion from a place of mental and physical exhaustion to the point that you cause yourself distress. At times, you just have to take a short break for what researchers call, ‘Self Compassion;’ allowing space within yourself to express compassion to yourself. This is not self-absorption or self-centeredness. These are very different from Self-Compassion. In Self-Compassion, you are kind to yourself by recognizing your gifts rather than judging yourself too harshly; You recognize that you are connected to humanity – you are more than an isolated individual; and you practice mindfulness, seeking balance in your varied aspects of life. In Judeo-Christian spirituality, you practice ‘Self-Compassion’ by being still and knowing God knows you by name.
A few years ago, as we walked through the 9/11 Museum in New York City with our youth, I remember the silence and tears of our kids and I can still see them reading the stories and viewing the pictures of the victims including preschoolers in the day care center. Do you remember the compassion that emerged following 9/11?
- New York City’s ironworkers showed up to cut the fallen buildings’ steel frames into manageable sizes for removal.
- Millions of school children wrote notes to the families of the victims and the workers clearing the rubble.
- Churches across the nation stepped forward to offer support and encouragement.
- Over 250 non-profit groups raised more than $700 million in two years to help in the recovery effort and care for the families of the victims and the health issues of the first responders.
- The stories of compassion are innumerable.
On 9/11, Joseph Bradley was a fifty year old hard-hat crane operator with the New York City fire department. Twenty-eight years earlier, in 1973, he was a 22-year old construction worker for a company building the World Trade Towers. Now, as a fireman, he was removing debris. Bradley, like so many of the recovery workers, became overwhelmed by the carnage at the site. On the first night under the bright lamps lighting the scene, he sank to the ground with his head cradled in his hands. Listen to his words of what happened next. “Just as I started to feel despair, the Salvation Army kids showed up in their sneakers with their pink hair and their belly buttons showing and bandanas tied around their faces. They came with water and cold towels and took off my boots and put dry socks on my feet. And when I got to Houston Street, a bunch more of these kids, all pierced and tattooed with multi-colored hair, had made a little makeshift stage. They started to cheer as we came out of the recovery area, and that was it for me. I never identified with those people before, and I started crying, and I cried for four blocks. I got home and saw my wife, who asked, ‘Joe, are you okay?’ “Sure!” I said. You know the bravado came back. But she said, ‘Are you sure? Go look in the mirror.’ There I was with my filthy dirty face and just two clean lines down from my eyes. A community of compassion was the last thing anyone expected to find in the mouth of hell.”
Beloved, let us pray on this Labor Day weekend that we will be renewed by God’s compassion for us. And let us pray that we will be more and more compassionate toward persons who are harassed and helpless in the systemic injustices of these days and those who suffer because of life’s crises. Dear God, let there be an increased outflowing of oxytocin in these days. Amen and AMEN!
If you keep reading Matthew’s Gospel into chapter 10, you’ll notice that it begins with Jesus sending out the 12 disciples and 58 others to be laborers in the vineyard of God’s compassion. Isn’t that just like Jesus to ask us to pray for something and then tell us that we need to be part of the answer to our prayers? Here’s the good news. He sent them out two by two and promised that God would always go with them. Yes, you are part of a community of compassion even on days when you stand at the mouth of hell.