Compassion Becomes Mission – The Rev. Michelle Meech
June 18, 2023
I always bristle when someone brings up the false dichotomy of science vs. religion. This belief has developed into a very problematic trend in our society, because there are people who claim the authority to challenge whether or not facts are actually facts.
It’s worthwhile to note that this demonization of science really began at the turn of the 20th century as science started to prove Biblical stories as not based in fact. From 1910-1915, the Christian fundamentalist movement, funded by an American oil tycoon, surfaced as a way to counter science and the effect they saw science having on Christian faith. Among their precepts is reading the Bible as though it’s literally true. It’s also worthwhile to say that Fundamentalist Christians are not necessarily the same as Evangelical Christians.
As this sector has gained access to media and political power, exploiting the fear that developed in the wake of 911 and in response to Barak Obama, a Black man, being our president, white Christian fundamentalists have become Christian nationalists. People who conflate Christianity with consumerism and white supremacy and believe that facts are based on one’s own worldview.
Thankfully, not all Christians are Christian nationalists. And not all churches are adherent to a fundamentalist form of faith.
I believe that science and religion are different ways of understanding God. Like they are looking at the mysteries of the universe from different angles. Every day, science gives us more and more insight into the truly amazing works of God and how this entire universe is interconnected. And science learns from its own practice. Previously held assumptions are disproven all the time, which is, frankly, more than I can say for many people who call themselves religious. There is a flexibility necessary in science that assumes as we learn more, we will change our minds. The factual understanding we gain from science is a necessary part of our reality because we live in this time-space continuum with other finite beings. We have to know how this physical space works.
But science is not all there is. Our Holy Scripture may not be factual in all places, but it is none the less true in how it helps us to see who we are and who we are becoming in relationship to God. And for me, that is not only comforting but it is salvific, a mark of how scripture contains things necessary for salvation.
One of the more recent findings from science is how our physical body houses what we term as intelligence. For eons, the mystics who are at the heart of all religions, have taught that we have 3 physical centers of intelligence – the head; the heart; the gut. We’ve heard phrases like “listen to your heart” and “I had a gut feeling.”
And, for a while, science did not agree with this. Science argued that because “thinking” happened in our head through an organ called the brain, that the head was the only center of intelligence. Through methods of scientific discovery, science unpacked the basic layers of what makes up the brain and discovered that intelligence is determined by the presence of particular cells called neurons. Neurons are built to create connections called synapses. And, in these synapses, are the capacity to learn, remember, create thoughts – all characteristics of intelligence.
Now, recently, science discovered that there were two other concentrations of neurons in the body – guess where… the heart and the gut. This means that the heart and the gut are both capable of “thinking” without sending signals to the brain. While the brain clearly houses the most neurons in our bodies, the heart and the gut have the neurons to actually think and make decisions.
All of this I find to be interesting because of how our Gospelers, who wrote in Koine Greek, always talked about “compassion.”
In today’s Gospel from Matthew:
Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
The word for compassion here is the same word that is used in the Gospel of Mark: esplangchnisthe. Now when we think of the word compassion, we probably think of something that comes from the heart, not the head. Right? But no. The word esplangchnisthe is a word that literally means “the stirring of one’s bowels” because the bowels, not the heart, were considered to be the source of emotions. (Senior, 112). This is the intelligence of the gut in action.
We are more connected to one another the more we are connected to the place in our body that keeps us grounded, the part of our body that is most directly connected to the earth, in Hebrew adamah. The loam and the soil and the water, that which houses the very elements from which our bodies are made. This is how Jesus disciples and Jesus himself understood our connection to one another – as a part of the earth, a part of this incredible creation.
We heard last week from the Rev. Richard Witt that Abraham is the person in our lineage – the lineage we share with Jews and Muslims – who first realized the blessing that is creation itself because he left behind what he knew and came to understand that our home, as human beings, our home is this entire creation, alongside all the other creatures God gave life from the loam and the soil and the water.
And when a part of this creation is in pain, when a part of this creation is in need of healing, our response is a “gut response,” to reach out and help. To reach out and care. To reach out and be with. To do something… in response. How could we not? Because it is as if a part of us is in pain or in need of healing.
This part of Matthew we read today is called the Mission Discourse. Because in these verses, Jesus instructs his disciples in what mission looks like, what it means, how to live into it. I don’t mean “mission” as we think of “missionaries.” Rather, Mission is why we are here. Why we are called out to be the church in this time, in this place, with these resources.
Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness… [He said,] “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.”
So, if we’re wondering what the mission of the church is, the mission of the Church is simply this: Cure the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse the lepers. Caste out the demons. This is how we proclaim the Good News. This is how we say, God’s kingdom is here.
When Jesus says “cure the sick”… we have to ask ourselves, What is causing people to be sick?
How about addiction, pollution, poverty, racial inequality built into the medical system, politics getting in the way of doctors performing life-saving procedures for women or gender affirming care of thousands of Americans.
When Jesus says “raise the dead”… we have to ask ourselves, Who is dead to us? Who is it that we never ever take into account when we think about to whom we are responsible?
Immigrants. Prisoners. Anyone who has no rights in our legal systems. Those who will live after us in the wake of the climate change we have caused and continue to cause.
When Jesus says, “cleanse the lepers”… we ask ourselves, Who are the ones we think of as untouchable, the ones we consider as being unclean in some way?
Drug addicts. Homeless. LGBTQ people, especially trans women of color.
And finally, when Jesus says, “cast out demons”… We might talk about the importance of mental health for all of us.
Finding a way to help all of us understand that there is no shame in seeking out help for our mental health. Because we all have demons. None of us need to tough it out on our own.
Cure the sick. Raise the dead. Cleanse the lepers. Cast out demons.
This is how we proclaim the Good News.
This is how we say, God’s kingdom is here.
Because we are all interconnected. We are all beloved children of God. We are all made of this earth.
Science tells us this. Our Holy Scripture tells us this.
There is no chasm between the two. There is no contest.
It may seem as though the world is falling apart. I’m not sure that it’s not, if I’m honest.
But the more we embrace this, as church, the more we will learn what it means to BE church. Why we are here to begin with.
What I do know is that we are here. We are believers. We worship God who IS love. We worship the God of life. We believe that Jesus is our savior because he tells us that we must love God and love our neighbor as ourselves and he tells us EXACTLY how to do that.
We are church. And the world needs us as healers because we believe in Jesus.
Because we know that science tells us how God works, we are needed.
Because we are affirming of LGBTQ people as full members of God’s beloved creation, we are needed.
Because we understand systemic injustice and the need to overturn systems of oppression, we are needed.
Because of all the other ways we take action when we discern what it means to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons, we are needed.
We are needed because the world needs a Gospel that is bright and bold and clear. And that is what we have to offer.