Sunday, September 30, 2018

Where Compassion Breaks Out: James 5:13-20 - 19th Sunday after Pentecost

13Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (NRSV)

World Water Day - 22 March by United Nations Photo.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Ramiro sits down in front of the desk of Father Gregory Boyle, the leader of Homeboy Industries.

You may recall from last week, Homeboy Industries is a ministry that strives to provide meaningful employment opportunities for ex-gang members and at-risk youth, while improving quality of life in their community.

Ramiro needs a job.  And the deck is stacked against him, in the biggest ways possible.  He had just been released from Corcoran State Prison with an extensive criminal background.  He’s covered with gang tattoos—including a very bad word tattooed in big letters on his forehead. 

I can’t think of any employer who’d want to even talk to Ramiro.  Most people wouldn’t even want to be in the same city as this man. 

But Father Boyle offered him a job, bagging bread at the Homeboy Bakery.  Then a doctor volunteered his time to help remove the tattoo off of his forehead.  Today, you wouldn’t even know it was there (Boyle, 7-8).

I can’t help but think of Father Boyle and Homeboy Industries as those who “bring back sinners from wandering to save the sinner’s soul from death,” described so beautifully in our second reading from James (5:20).

But how do you get through to someone like Ramiro?  Perhaps, the even bigger question is, how can Ramiro get through to you?

One thing that’s frustrated me for as long as I’ve been a pastor is how much shame gets in the way of ministry. 

People are so ashamed they won’t set foot in God’s house.  Our own shame is keeping us from living in genuine Christian community.

Some days, it feels like there are two kinds of people in the world: those who have it all together, and those who don’t—with the church being an exclusive club for those who do.

If you fall short of this idea, you are ashamed—and other people may shame you…

Tragically, our society has turned shaming into a perverted art.  When someone shames you, they’re condemning you.  You’re beneath them.  They’re no good.  Foolishly, they believe that what’s happened to you can never happen to them because they’re just plain better than you!  They’re believing that they would never do what you’ve done because they’re just plain better than you! 

Shame becomes a millstone that pulls you deeper into despair and hopelessness.  It isolates you and it destroys you.  Shame is the root of all addictions.  And it is a barrier to the Gospel.

Yet Jesus destroyed shame.  Even though he healed diseases and cast out demons, but he couldn’t change a person’s ethnicity or gender.  He couldn’t undo a sinful person’s past.  What he did was dwell with them.  He dined with them.  He belonged to them.  And when God’s Son stands in solidarity with people whom everyone else shames, the shame cannot stand!

James describes a Christian community in which shame cannot exist.  Fact is, every member of the Body of Christ is a sinner.  Everyone is vulnerable to sickness, loss, and poverty.  Everyone comes as a beggar for God’s grace.  And instead of making distinctions between the righteous and unrighteous, rich and poor, weak or strong, everyone belongs to one another.  That’s what compassion is—it’s not the rich serving the poor; or the healthy serving the sick…  Compassion begins with by mutual belonging: you belong to me and me to you, regardless of your mistakes or misfortunes…  It’s seeing Ramiro with the swear word on his forehead and becoming a brother or sister to him. 

The more the Body of Christ stands with those who are shamed and ashamed, the more that shame will go away—and the healing will begin.

Healing begins when you can say to the people who love you, “I’ve sinned.”  “My money’s gone and I’m about to be homeless.”  “I’m very sick and I’m scared.”  “I’m being abused.”  “I drink.”  “I use drugs.”  “I’m addicted to gambling or pornography.”  “I’m gay.”  “I’m depressed.”  “I’m lonely.”  “I don’t want to go on living.”

And instead of people shaking their heads in disapproval, or condescendingly telling you what you need to do to fix your problem, their arms are open.  Their words assure you, “Jesus loves you, and so do I.”  Now, you can pray for one another.  You can confess your sins and help each other live and do what is right.  As for people like Ramiro who grew up in poverty and violence and made horrendous choices largely as a result, you welcome him home.  He belongs to you as you to him.  Shame cannot stand when you stand with him.  And best of all—he will bring Christ to you as you do to him.

Our church doesn’t need perfect, young families like the one I described—and that’s a good thing, because they don’t exist!   To be a strong and faithful church is to be one where those who ride in on high horses abandon them at the door; and those who bear shame are relieved of it.  The least and lost of this world belong to us and us to them.  They are the ones who will make the love of Jesus more real to us—and they will help us to heal and become the people Jesus wants us to be.

Here is where compassion breaks out—and Jesus binds us one to another.


Boyle, Greg. Tattoos on the Heart. New York: Free Press, 2011.