Won’t You Be…?

Downtown Champaign was hopping last night! We were out late with friends who were back in town for a wedding. Rain threatened, but didn’t dissuade folks from filling the streetside tables. No occasion, just a sultry summer Monday evening. Vibrant and lively. An easy night to be proud of our town.

When a stranger approached our table, I looked away. He wasn’t talking to me anyway. He directed his request toward the guys, who looked at him and listened without interrupting. I disinclined my ear and held my tongue at the interruption.

Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number….” Exodus 1:8-10a (CEB)

History was not my favorite subject. This king didn’t find it particularly interesting either. He was ignorant of the fact that Egypt’s survival and wealth were built on Joseph’s wisdom during the drought. He could see that multi-cultural Egypt was not working. The melting pot wasn’t happening. 

But the more the Hebrews were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. Exodus 1:12 

The problem wasn’t just with the leader’s policies. Everyday people on the street viewed each other with suspicion and cultural revulsion. The more things change over thousands of years…our fear of the other remains. 

But personal stories of compassion are fascinating to me (from a safe distance.) Where one person truly sees another, and their heart is moved. Last evening, I looked away when the stranger requested help for a woman at the table behind us. Her words and movements were slurred; could we contribute a taxi ride home?

My mind supplied so many reasons not to get involved. Potential problems abounded. “I’m sorry,” would have been my answer, “I just can’t.” I made myself smaller in the corner, while the men who missed my sermon about being a neighbor (because they were taking care of the kids) listened and responded. I thought of all the ways this could go badly, but I wasn’t spiritual enough to actually pray. 

Are women more able to extend help when there are no men around? A strange question, though I’m surely not the first person to consider the gender dynamics of compassion.

There is an illegal baby hiding among the reeds of the Nile. Separated from parents, with only an older sister to watch after him. When I look into the crying face of someone else’s child, do I feel sorry for him, as Pharaoh’s daughter did? Am I moved to reunite the baby with his birth mother to be fed? Or to take him on as my own financial responsibility? 

That adopted baby turned out to be a murderer and an ongoing problem. A rebellious daughter’s choice put the whole system in jeopardy, undermined the labor structure, and brought large-scale disaster. 

My companions last night were neighbors to the unknown woman in trouble. I was thinking about Jesus’ illustration. The story of the stupid Samaritan, I would have called it, if I were his wife. “You could have gotten yourself killed!” I would have exclaimed, when he got home. “Not to mention the money you wasted on a guy who probably would have crossed the street if he saw you coming.”

Perhaps compassion is a thankless job. Sometimes illegal. Often dangerous. With unintended consequences. Personally, I’m not a big fan. It goes against my inclination to protect myself and my own kind. 

But it is also the beauty of humanity. Created in the image of a compassionate God. Not because we are cute or deserving. But because God first loved us. And then we learn to love others. The Other. An ongoing journey, on which we learn from people we didn’t expect to teach us. 

May we be like Pharaoh’s daughter. And the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who respected God enough to break the law and lie about it. And the unnamed Samaritan. May we look, and truly see, those who have been put in our path in order that we might become their neighbor. 

Bulletin: 7/14
Order of Service: 7/14
Sermon: The Question of Love
News-Gazette interview with Pastor Renée
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