How are you doing today? It’s a question we tend to answer multiple times a day, so much so that it’s become a cursory response. “fine” “good” “ok” “busy, but good” are all culturally acceptable responses, and they may indeed be our true answers. But what about when we have other answers to give? What if we have accomplished something incredible and we want to share how proud we are. What if life is going really well and we have a lot to celebrate. Those responses seem to go over pretty well. And then, there are the other answers. The ones that answer the question just as honestly, but are not really what the asker is looking for. What if we are tired because we have been going non-stop for who knows how many weeks now and we are desperate for a break. What if we are struggling with the weight of the world and our lives in such a way that just getting dressed and out the door was a challenge. What if we are angry and irritated because we’ve just had a fight with a loved one. What if we are anxious or worried because we don’t know how a situation in our lives is going to work out. Typically, I’ll venture that many of us conceal these types of answers, and substitute a “fine” when asked, because we know that the one asking was just making polite conversation, and probably doesn’t want us to go into the whole answer. And, as a result, we engage in routine transactional conversations like this day in and day out, seemingly forming relationships with each other based on reciprocity.
“Let mutual love continue.” This morning, I want to offer that the writer of Hebrews calls us to a different level of engagement with each other. This isn’t just a “hey- ask each other how they are doing, then smile and nod and be on your way.” It is a radical call to be in community with each other in ways that reflect honesty and solidarity. If the rest of the letter is filled with what it means to “do good” and “be good” and follow in the footsteps of the legends of faith, here the author concludes with an earnest plea that this way of living not be solitary, and outlines ways in which that is lived out with these words about community.
The illustrations are striking: offering hospitality to strangers, no doubt referencing Abraham and Sarah’s welcoming of the 3 visitors in Genesis, and spending time with those in prison or who are tortured, along with a note about a marital bed. All have one thing in common: they are places where people, where we, are the most vulnerable. And that is a hard place to be. I’d venture a guess that’s the reason we hesitate to dig deeper into that “how are you doing” question; because it comes in times and places where we don’t want to make ourselves vulnerable, or slow down to really just be with each other.
Do you have someone in your life to whom you can honestly answer the question “how are you doing?” Or, perhaps even more importantly, when you ask that question are you prepared for the fullness of possibilities it brings? Can those you ask give you their most honest answer? If so, you’re on the way to mutual love. Seeking to go deeper in relationships with others, it is said that John Wesley would open small group meetings with the question “how is it with your soul?” Cursory answers don’t quite fit that. Instead, it’s a deep look in the eyes of another person, and following up that social exchange with “but really. How are you?” Such a question opens the door to truly being in a community with each other that is marked by mutual love, because it opens the door to hearing and holding the challenges others experience in life.
This kind of listening is difficult. More often than not, we approach those experiencing challenges or vulnerability with sympathy. We feel sorry for their situation and attempt to offer some sort of condolences, support, or pity. Doing this is a start, but also continues to keep us at a distance. What the writer of Hebrews pushes, I think, is a more engaged and relational way of being with each other.
Dr Brené Brown is a best-selling author, speaker and research professor. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame[i]. She argues that the best way to ease someone’s pain and suffering is not sympathy, but empathy. The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, whose mission is to enrich society through ideas and action, put some of her words with animation to explain the distinction between sympathy and empathy, and what it means to have a genuine empathetic connection, or, as I would offer, a genuine mutual love connection. Let’s check it out:
What makes something better is connection. That is Hebrews 13 in a nutshell, maybe even the whole letter and in some ways the sum of all of our scriptures. As people of God, we are a connectional people – not just on some surface passing on the street level, but on a meaningful and significant level as siblings in Christ. Theologican Dietrich Bonhoeffer said:
We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ[ii].
He continued to note, as you see on your bulletin cover, that through Christ, we have been given this gift of community with God and with each other, and called to actively participate in it[iii].
In Jesus Christ, God modeled what mutual love was all about. Rather than just look down from a cloud and say “wow, that’s a pretty messed up world. You want a sandwich?” God became flesh and lived among us. Literally came down into the world so that God would know what the human experience was like firsthand. God didn’t just have sympathy for the way things were in the world. God had empathy. God was present with God’s people, just as God had been since the beginning when God led the people of Israel through the wilderness with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (see Exodus 13). In Jesus, God continues to be faithful. God sits next to us when we are overwhelmed. God stops to listen to whatever answer we have to that question “how are you?” God promises us that we will never be alone, to the end of the age. We know this as the incarnation, and it sets the tone for how we relate to God, and how we relate to each other. When we live in empathy, we live out an incarnational theology, reflecting a God who comes alongside us and is present with us as we seek to come alongside and be present with each other.
Maybe it starts by truly asking each other how we are doing, and taking the time to listen. Maybe it continues by finding spaces where we can be brave and vulnerable in ways that open us up to answering with the most honesty we can muster. Maybe then we will be entertaining angels. At the very least, children of God.
Let mutual love continue . . . And, how are you doing today? Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford, Heritage Presbyterian Church, September 1, 2019
[iii] “Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, trans. and introduction by John W. Doberstein, (New York: HarperOne, 1954).