CALLED TO EMPATHY
There is a story I read on the internet some time back about a little girl. In the course of the day, her friend lost her favorite doll which she’d brought over to play with. She was heartbroken, and sat on the steps and began to cry. When the first little girl’s mother came outside to check on the girls, she found them both sitting on the step sobbing. When she asked what was wrong, she was told through the tears that the little friend, Suzie had lost her favorite doll. The mother looked puzzled for a bit, then asked her daughter, “did you lose your doll too?” “No”, the daughter sobbed. “Then what’s wrong with you?” “Nothing” she sobbed. “I’m just helping Suzie cry.” That is empathy: when our heart breaks for another. There is a song in our hymnal which we sang this morning, “there is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” What beautiful, comforting words. But the prophet Jeriamiah cries out, “no”. For him there seems to be no balm to comfort. He is weeping inconsolably, not for his own problems, but for those of his people. Listen to his cry again: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick…for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt. I mourn and dismay has taken hold of me…my eyes are a fountain of tears, so that I might mourn day and night.” And he was not weeping for himself, he was weeping for his people. God had given him a great sense of empathy for his people. Even as he delivered news of judgment, Jeremiah’s heart was breaking.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in a time of great tumult and transition. The nation of Judah was undergoing a period of political and social decline. Leaders were weak and ineffective, and all around him, the prophet saw people who were not living up to the covenant with Yahweh. The Lord called Jeremiah to preach repentance to these sinful people, but their resistance leads towards their eventual destruction. Chapter 8 describes an upcoming invasion from an enemy in the north. Soon the people will undergo intense suffering and tragedy. The amazing thing about the prophet Jeremiah is that he does not revel in being right. He has told them time and time again of the need to repent and the coming consequences of their sin if they don’t. And time and time again, they refused to listen. Now they are about to bear the consequences of this continual sin and refusal to repent. And many times, human nature revels in seeing the wicked punished. We like to see the bad guy get theirs…westerns. But not Jeremiah. He does not stand aside and preach condemnation to the masses, or even point a finger saying, “see, if you had listened to me you wouldn’t’ be in this mess.” At the close of Chapter 8 we find him weeping inconsolably for the brokenness of his people. He is a man in pain: for those who have died in the wars, for those who are alive and begging to be rescued by the very God they have turned their backs on, and even pain for the heart of God which is breaking over the pain of God’s people from the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. This weeping of Jeremiah over his people is reminiscent of Jesus’ weeping over Jerusalem.
As we hear the wailings of Jeremiah here in our scripture, I can’t help but marvel over the power of true empathy. It is his true love and concern for the people of Judah that allows Jeremiah to anticipate, identify with, and experience his nation’s suffering. Much like the little girl in our story, he is heartsick, and weeps, not for his own troubles, but for the pain of those he loves.
This leads us to wonder, what is the place of true empathy in the church today? How often do we find ourselves mourning for the sinfulness or brokenness of our world? Each day we hear reports of children killing children, of children who are abused, of violence and addictions and sexual perversions, of corruption in our governments and our churches, of terrorists attacks throughout our world and threats at home. It is enough to make one sick at heart. And you see, God’s heart breaks even more than ours at all this -at the loss of life and loss of morals and loss of hope and loss of fullness of life with which we are surrounded today. That is why he calls us to empathy- not a kind of empathy that simply feels sorry for folks…that is sympathy. But an empathy that leads us to deeds of mercy and justice- i.e. to action in His name. That is true empathy.
True empathy is a vital part of our call to ministry. We are moved to ministry when we allow our hearts to break with the things that break the heart of God. Only when we allow ourselves to truly see the needs of the world around us, and feel the pain of their lostness can we be moved by God into action. We, like Jeremiah are called to be “weeping prophets” as we develop a sense of true empathy for the brokenness of the world around us. Sometimes it is tempting, when we see pain, suffering, brokenness, and consequences of sin around us, to pass by on the other side. Perhaps we don’t want to be bothered or get involved. But for real ministry to happen, we have to get involved. We have to risk caring, risk investing ourselves, be truly saddened by the violence and hatred in our world to the point of action. We are called to ache over those who don’t have their basic needs met, those who are struggling with addictions, those who have taken the wrong path, people who are lonely, lost, afraid, suffering, in need of grace, comfort and strength and to walk with them through the valley, offering the hope and healing balm found in Christ.
A disciple is one whose heart is broken over the things that break the heart of God. God’s love is a healing balm, and so as disciples, our task is to show people to the truth that we all can find healing, wholeness, renewal, forgiveness and strength in Christ, who waits with arms outstretched. May we, like Jeremiah, have out hearts broken with the things that break the heart of God. Then our lives will point people to the Christ - to this balm of Gilead that makes the wounded whole. There are opportunities to make a difference, one life at a time, all around. I have several flyers in the back of the church to help you get started, but there are many other opportunities. Find the need that pulls at your heart the most and begin to make a difference.