This morning, we begin a new sermon series on what it means to be marked for good. We are not perfect, by any means. Not even close. But what is strange is that our imperfection doesn’t seem to matter to God. God doesn’t wait for us to be perfect before engaging us. God meets us where we are. And in meeting God, we cannot help but be changed. We will learn and grow. And somewhere in the middle of all that, way before we have gotten close to any kind of perfection, God sends us out into the world: changed, marked, but still imperfect. This morning we look at the mark of sympathy. Sympathy is a normal human emotion. With all the advances in neuroscience recently, we have learned a great deal about human emotions. With sympathy, what we have learned is that our sympathy for another person increases with proximity. In other words, the closer a person or a tragedy is to us, the more likely we are to be sympathetic. This isn’t really earth-shattering information. We know that news of a Tsunami half-way around the world is tragic, but doesn’t affect us nearly as much as word of a national tragedy. And these are both minute compared to a local emergency or, even worse, a family agony. The closer we are to something, the more time we have invested in it, the more likely it is that it will affect us.
And yet, the same is true when we’re simply talking about physical proximity, and even when we’re talking about complete strangers. There’s an experiment that illustrates this quite well. I don’t think I have shared this story before from the pulpit, but if I have, please indulge me. It’s an experiment by Joshua Greene, professor of psychology at Harvard University. He asked respondents two simple questions.
You are at a train yard. There are five men working on one track, and a train is coming, but they can’t hear or see it because of the work they’re doing, and you only have one option to change the situation: you can flip a switch which will move that train to another track. On that track, one man is working, and he cannot see or hear the train either. So the choice is: do you throw the switch or not? 9 out of 10 people answer yes.
Second question: same train yard, same situation. Except this time, you are above the track, and your only option is that there is a man standing next to you. If you push him down onto the track, he will be killed, but the five men will be spared. Do you push him or not? 9 out of 10 people answer no.
The arithmetic is the same. Five dying is worse than one dying. But there is something within us that would be willing to make that choice if it’s a mechanical one (throwing a switch) but not if it’s a physical one (pushing a person).
And here’s what’s particularly interesting about Greene’s experiment: the moment of decision in each question activated a different part of the brain. The first question, in which you choose whether or not to throw a switch, activates the part of the brain that deals with simple calculations. The second question, in which you choose whether or not to push someone, activates an older part of the brain (biologically speaking), one that has more to do with survival, with our fight or flight response.
When it comes to the arithmetic of lives, I came across a shocking chart the other day looking at casualties as a result of September 11 and the War on Terror. We all know that close to 3000 died on 9/11. And in the ten years since then, we are probably aware that almost twice as many American military lives have been lost. Here is where it gets troubling: the Afghani civilian casualties have been twenty times that, at about 60,000. And in Iraq, the numbers are mind-boggling: since 2001, 300 times as many Iraqi civilians have died as Americans who died on September 11, approaching 1,000,000.
Most of us can grasp that, intellectually, the tragedy of Iraq is far greater than our own. But do our emotions reflect our mathematical calculations?
As much as we would like to think of sympathy as a choice, it’s far more likely to be based on a natural reaction deep within us.
Sympathy itself is a Greek word. It means, at its most basic level, to feel with someone. And in both of our lessons this morning, sympathy plays an interesting role.
In the passage from Mark’s gospel, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue when a “man who was deeply disturbed” interrupts and confronts him. Even though we may be centuries removed from the context, we can get our minds around the fact that such a man would’ve been an unwelcome embarrassment, an intrusion.
Given this, Jesus’ response is intriguing. He doesn’t rebuke the man, but, in the language of the time, “casts out the demon.” The man who had been, no doubt, a sort of local curiosity or village idiot is now free of the very thing that kept him on the outside of respectable society. We do not know for certain what happens to the man after this story, though we can certainly take some guesses. It is not likely that he was immediately welcomed in. Societies tend to appreciate a certain stability, and the movement of someone from the fringe to the inside does not happen with ease.
There is, in Jesus’ act of healing, a threat to the Capernaum status quo. And for Jesus, this threat quickly becomes a constant theme of his ministry. There’s no mention of sympathy or feelings in this particular story, but we know from other episodes of Jesus’ life that his compassion for others is often what leads to dramatic healings as well as clashes with the religious authorities. Sympathy, when acted upon, can be very upsetting.
And it’s sympathy that’s at the heart of what Paul is writing to the Corinthians. The church in Corinth is quite the mix of people. Predominantly gentile and poor, the congregation nevertheless had a mix of Jews and gentiles as well as some prominent members of society. And the bulk of Paul’s writings to the church are an effort to bring these various factions together into one community. If we can take Paul’s letter as any indication, it is a lack of sympathy which marks these divisions.
In our passage this morning, Paul writes to those who have come to the more enlightened understanding about this new Christian community’s relationship to other gods. Corinth was a cosmopolitan city, and so it had full representation of the Greek polytheistic practices. Temples to various gods abounded, and sacrifices were regularly made to these gods.
For those who had been at this “Christianity thing” a while, they knew – rightly – that these gods were powerless, and the sacrifices were meaningless. So eating meat that had been sacrifices to these gods was also without power. It literally meant nothing, beyond the consumption of meat. But, Paul reminds this diverse community, there are those in your number for whom sacrifices to the gods meant a great deal just a short while ago. They are relatively new at following Jesus. Intellectually, they may be able to grasp that these sacrifices are powerless. But at a gut level, it is still too new for them.
So, the message is, you may be correct in your practice, but the right thing, the sympathetic thing to do, is to let it go. Don’t eat this meat that is up for review. Give these new brothers and sisters time to adapt. You needed time to get used to that idea. Give them the same time. I love the way the Message we’ve been using recently in worship translates the verse: “Real knowledge isn’t that insensitive.”
Sensitivity to the feelings of others, sympathy, is one of the marks of discipleship. At its heart, sympathy is the very gospel itself, the idea of the divine God taking human form, experiencing what we experience, feeling what we feel, suffering what we suffer, and loving us all the more.
How’s your sympathy? Do you, like the Corinthians, indeed, like most of us, have room to grow? When you hear news stories from around the world, how do they affect you? Is your sympathy affected by the tribal lines that have been drawn in your life? Are you willing to let your heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God?
I’d like to suggest an exercise. When you hear stories of tragedy, gauge your reaction. What’s your typical response? Is it to turn the channel? Is it a heartfelt sadness? Does the closeness of the story affect your response? If it does, then pause for a moment. Close your eyes. Imagine what it would be if that story that took place in Syria, or Sudan, or China, or Peru was a local story. What would it be like to walk in that other person’s shoes?
And when you do this, when you imagine yourself experiencing the aches and pains of the world, know that this sympathy is its own form of prayer. It is a response to Paul’s call for unity. It is the confronting of a societal demon that afflicts us all. May we all be marked by its healing power.