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"Unmoored" Sermon on Empathy by Rev. Kristin Stoneking

Epworth The Last Supper Project. Photo by LeRoy Howard. (c) 2019 LeRoy Howard.

Unmoored: When We Feel We Lose God and Find God through Empathy

Galatians 3:1-9, 26-29

Epworth UMC, Berkeley

Rev. Kristin Stoneking

March 15, 2020

For those of you who came to the Ash Wednesday service, you were greeted with a transformed environment here in the sanctuary. There were 40 individual candles set on the altar rail to represent the 40 days of Lent. There were vases of bare branches on either side of the opening up to the steps and chancel area here. There was table with simple cloth, a bowl of sand and two thick pillar candles in the middle. All of this was meant to evoke the spare times of life, the impermanence of the flower. The ever present light of God.

And on the sides of the sanctuary, were displayed the wonderful photographic portraits you still see here. These portraits, based on Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper, the 15th century painting which is one of the most recognizable works of art in the Western World, these portraits were done last Lent as part of a small group led by LeRoy Howard. Each person in the group spent time considering the feelings, life, and role of each of the disciples around the table. And in this intense study of an other, they embodied that person. Whether the person they embodied was a betrayer or a lover of Jesus, they considered his story, his feelings, particularly his feelings at that moment, his being. Then they moved to the next disciple at the table and repeated the process.

One thing I love about this project is that it places women clearly at the table. There are theories that the figure to Jesus’ right in DaVinci’s painting is actually Mary Magdalene, and the original painting was retouched because having a woman at the table was too scandalous, not to mention THIS woman, and that she was seated at the place of honor. But history has erased what might have been there, retouching and interpreting the painting. The figure to Jesus’ right is commonly understood to be John, also known as the beloved disciple. Whatever that history may be, in THESE tableaus, the women are present.

The other piece I love so much about this project is that it is a practice in empathy. When we are all back in the sanctuary, take a moment to study the different expressions and positions held by your fellow Epworthians in these images. The members of the group took several weeks to study what we know historically and biblically about each person at the table. Then they studied their faces, the position of their bodies and hands. Then one by one, they took on the role of each disciple and Jesus himself.

As I was preparing for today, I asked Christina Kellogg who was part of the group to describe the experience. I expected that she might describe how difficult and painful it was. But instead she said it was extremely moving, and actually described it as transcending the pain latent in the scene by presence and empathy. She said, “The moment we were depicting was the moment right after Jesus has said, ‘One of you will betray me.’ So we are all in shock, but then the preparation we did on who each person really was, and the focus we brought to the moment, putting our hands in the position of the person in the painting, inclining our heads in a certain way, it brought us uniquely into that moment in a transcendent way.”

The beauty of the portrait of the Last Supper is that makes real the truth of the incarnation of God. Here in the center of the tableau is Jesus, who is co-equal and co-eternal with God. And around the table there are regular humans like you and me, receiving the body and blood of Christ, receiving the gift of being the ongoing incarnation of God through this gift. This is the Good News that converted Paul and is the story of generosity and love and empathy that has made Christian faith real for billions in the millennia since.

But in our scripture for today, the early church in Galatia has departed from this mystically transcendent moment depicted in the Lord’s Supper and sunk into anxiety and self-focus. In today’s selection, Paul begins with vehemence. He says, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Now let me just pause here to say I don’t like the word bewitched, especially in this context. I think it has misogynistic undertones and perpetuates negative stereotypes of women. And so I wondered about this word.

The Greek word here translated as “bewitched” is ebaskanen. It’s a rare word in the New Testament, used only once—in this very instance here in Galatians. And it turns out that bewitched really isn’t the best translation. This word is better translated as misled or diverted. Paul is charging the Galatians with having been misled from truth by that which often diverts from truth - something close to truth but which is not, exactly, truth. Something that has some truth in it, but distorts and diminishes.

Now let’s think about the situation at the time. The Galatians have stepped into an entirely new way of being, becoming a church in response to the Good News that Paul has shared with them. I’m sure it was exciting at first, the sense of solidarity, of being part of a new movement, the freedom that the radical equality of Paul’s message brought. Think about a time that you felt a sense of life, of possibility, of freedom and of solidarity. Maybe it was when you showed up at one of the vigils at the West County Detention Center to demand justice for our migrant neighbors, singing as loudly as you could so they would know you were there and that you cared. Or maybe it was a time of falling in love, of being able to see yourself with the value and worth with which your new beloved saw you. This sense of possibility and hope and freedom, even in the face of injustice, reflects what the Galatians were likely feeling as they heard the Good News from Paul.

But then Paul left. And just like the let down that can happen after leaving a rally or a group of people acting in solidarity, or the let down as a new relationship settles into its habits, the let down of Paul’s departure left them searching. And they’ve fallen into some old grooves, some old thinking and some new anxieties. They’ve traded the freedom of transcending labels for something else, something more constricting. They are falling back into the comfort of rules, and the false truths of stereotypes. And Paul says to them, Don’t be diverted! Don’t be misled by something that might look like the truth but is not the truth!

In the last few weeks, my guess is that you, like me, have been spending a lot of time online and in conversation with friends about the truth of coronavirus and what is a reasonable and informed response. What is a responsible response. What is a just response. There’s a lot of information out there, some of it corroborates other information, some of it contradicts it.

There are some new rules to live by, and while we heed what we must for the sake of all, let us not forget the words of Paul who reminded the Galatians and reminds us that we have a new call through the Spirit. It is that new call that informs our response to coronavirus. Our response must be not just a following of rules but a holistic response that fully takes into account the well-being of all.

In our response to coronavirus at Epworth, we’ve set up three teams. These teams, taking guidance from the three general rules of Epworth are the Do No Harm Team, the Do All the Good You Can Team and the Stay in Love with God Team. The first team has been working for the last two plus weeks to take precautions, changing the way we take communion, pass the peace and engage in other dimensions of our common life. This team discerned it was best for us to move to online worship for at least the next two weeks, and made a call yesterday morning to limit the number of persons here today. We will continue working with all of the best available information and I’m so grateful for the professional expertise, wisdom and service that exists on this team.

Our Do All the Good You Can Team is asking what can we do in the community and for our community to respond to needs that arise or intensify because of this crisis? We already know Berkeley Food Network needs volunteers. Others not connected may need food delivered. People might quite literally be out of toilet paper. Others may be feeling isolated and alone and a concert from the steps of Epworth carrying music through the semi-deserted streets of Berkeley and broadcast through Facebook live could do a world of good.

And finally, our Stay in Love with God Team. This team will work to reach out to pray with people, connect people and keep our relationships with God and each other strong. Quarantines and limited travel offer new opportunities for study. Let’s think about using the considerable music resources in this congregation for spiritual healing and transcendence.

It is my fervent hope that the lion’s share of attention and energy Epworth will spend on this crisis will be towards empathy. What do others need? How is this person or that group faring? What do we have to offer to alleviate that suffering, and connect others who may feel like they are unmoored and have lost God to God? Just as the participants in the Last Supper Portrait Project learned, empathy is the way to transcend pain. Empathy takes the focus off ourselves and our own needs and anxieties and moves our focus to the needs and feelings of others. And this leads us into service, into love, into peace. We know this is true. It is the wisdom of our tradition. Acting in empathy is acting in faith. May it be so. Amen.

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