Compassion, blessing and sustaining the world

This is the sermon I preached  with great joy at the ordination of one of my dearest friends, Diana Hultgren, a Unitarian Universalist chaplain, on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2016, in Lexington, Kentucky. May it also touch your heart, as Diana has touched mine.

I’m so grateful to be here in Lexington, (the heck with Storm Jonas!) and to bring greetings from your friends and colleagues in Alaska. Also, thank you for getting me out of experiencing a 7.1 earthquake in Alaska this morning. Happily, by all reports, people seem to have weathered the quake just fine. In particular, I am delighted to bring you greetings from Providence Alaska Medical Center, where we are so grateful to have shared in your formation, your gifts, and particularly your friendship.

Diana, a week ago I asked you about particular themes or readings for your service today – I am a Lutheran preacher, after all, and we preach from texts! You said “Oh, community” and “justice.” You’re right, I probably didn’t need to ask. And everything about this celebration says both those things: community and justice. But, and rightly so, there’s another overriding message – love. And that love, truly is (and must be) the basis both for our community and our justice-seeking.

 Martin Luther King Jr reminds us that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I heard this story from Pastor Robyn Hartwig, when she preached at my ordination service in August of 2000. She heard this story from Fr. Dale Fushek, when he coordinated Mother Teresa’s visit to the United States in 1989. She filled a stadium with two days notice. On the first day of her visit, she raised $33,000 for her ministries.

Fr. Dale was looking forward to celebrating mass for Mother Teresa and her traveling companions –together, Mother Teresa was staying with her sisters in a small house. On the day of the service, there were about 24 police officers outside the house, screening and admitting the approved people to the house – those who were traveling with her were allowed in, some special visitors from the diocese. And finally, when about 2 dozen people had gathered, Fr. Dale began the mass. Everyone was seated … except Mother Teresa. When he got to the first reading, he noticed that Mother Teresa was not only standing, but beginning to pace a bit. By the second reading she was pacing back and forth across the room, and he began to wonder if he’d become the priest known for presiding when Mother Teresa finally lost it! Soon she was rearranging people in the room, and finally she went to the doors to the room, threw them open, and waved everyone in. She waved nearly 400 people into that small house. People were leaning in through the windows, crowded in the bathrooms, on each others’ shoulders. But once the people were gathered together, all welcome, Mother Teresa finally sat down.

So long as anybody was excluded, Mother Teresa could not sit down.

So long as anyone did not experience the fullness of God’s love, healing, grace, Mother Teresa would not sit down.

And Diana, this is also true from what I know of you. As long as someone is lacking justice. As long as someone is lonely or in need of compassion or healing, you too will not sit down.

 Another story:

Compassion: The Legend of the Lamed-Vov

(by Rachel Naomi Remen, in  “My Grandfather’s Blessings, pp 8-9)

Rachel’s grandfather, an Orthodox rabbi and scholar of the Kabbalah, the mystical Jewish teachings of Judaism, once told her a very old story that dates from the time of the prophet Isaiah. In the legend of the Lamed-Vov, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of 36 good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is part of the human condition. These 36 are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than 36 such people alive, the world will come to an end.

“Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?” Rachel asked, certain that he would say “Yes.” But he shook his head. “No, Rachel,” he told her. “Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them.”

It turned out that the Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them. “And because no one knows who they are, Rachel, anyone you meet might be one of the 36 for whom God preserves the world,” her Grandfather said. “It is important to treat everyone as if this might be so.”

Rachel sat and thought about this story for a long time. She’d heard lots of stories with happily-ever-after endings. But her grandpa’s story made no such promises. God asked something of people in return for the gift of life, and He was asking it still.

Suddenly, Rachel realized that she had no idea what “it” was. If so much depended on it, it must be something very hard, something that required a great sacrifice. What if the Lamed-Vovniks could not do it? What then? “How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to the suffering, Grandpa?” Rachel asked, suddenly anxious. “What do they have to do?” Rachel’s grandfather smiled at her very tenderly.

“Ah, Rachel,” he told her,” They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”

Diana, your compassion blesses and sustains the world. Just as your passion for justice and commitment to community bless and sustain the world.

But I hope that you will also hear this from this story: Rachel’s grandfather emphasized that we must treat ALL people as though they might be one of the 36 Lamed-Vovniks. When I think about how I’d want to treat a Lamed-Vovnik, I’d want to make sure that she is welcomed. Encouraged. Nourished. Responding to suffering with compassion may be far more about “being” than it is about “doing,” but after nearly 12 years of chaplaincy, I’m pretty sure there’s still nothing easy about that task.

 And you may already know this about Diana, but let me tell you a couple of stories. When she was in Alaska, she would housesit for me when I traveled, taking care of my three kitties, enjoying my house despite all the clutter, and, probably most important, getting to use my car. I’m still not sure where all she went those times I was away, but I’m pretty sure my car saw parts of Alaska that I’ve never been.

And when Diana lived in Colorado, I came to visit her for a week. We started in Denver, drove up through Rocky Mountain National Park, to Steamboat Springs, west to UTAH to Dinosaur National Monument, back down to I-70 past Vail and back to Denver. We had lots of great plans to hike, but mostly we drove. I saw a LOT of Colorado. Diana likes to fit it all in. And rest is not her strength.

And there are SO MANY GOOD THINGS to DO. This might be why Diana and I share a mutual longing for days in a blanket fort. We’ve planned – kitties, snacks, coloring, rest. And, frankly, with what I know about each of us, we could use more blanket fort time.

I have absolute confidence, Diana, that you will never fail in your justice-seeking, your offering compassion and love for the poor and vulnerable. But my hope for you, and what I suspect will be your greatest challenge, is to treat yourself as though you are one of the 36 Lamed-Vovniks. Take the time to welcome yourself home. To be nourished. To be a beloved part of community, with others who share in your burdens and joys. To rest. It is not about the doing, but about the compassionate response to suffering.

Helen Keller reminds us that the world is full of suffering, but it is also full of the overcoming of it.

Today we recognize your God-given gifts and calling, and celebrate your vocation as chaplain to the poor and vulnerable. Your compassion sustains the world. You contribute to the overcoming of suffering. But remember that you are not alone. You too are worthy of compassion, of rest.


The Lutheran in me feels compelled to remind you that the heart of my theology is that it is not, in the end, about what we do, so much as it is about what God does. The God of justice and compassion also calls us to rest, and most of all, calls us to life – abundant life.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. (attributed to the Talmud)
Pastor Brian talked at the beginning of this service about having a foot in both the world as it is and the world as it ought to be, and loving them both.

You may have heard Emma Goldman’s famous quote, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” But as I did some research this week, I learned that in fact that’s actually a paraphrase. In fact, I think I like the original better. Emma Goldman, apparently was once admonished for dancing at a party in New York, and was told “that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway.” She was furious, and said “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy … If it meant that, I did not want it.”

 Dance on, my friend. Dance for justice. Dance for community. Dance for love. Dance for compassion. Dance for the Lamed Vovniks. Dance until everyone is included. Dance with reckless abandon. And remember that we are all one body – we all dance together.


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