An Admonition From The Lord

From Rev. Jared Buss
May 9, 2016

Sermon made at Olivet New Church on May 8, 2016

 

Can you imagine going down to the Humber and finding a baby floating in a basket in the reeds? Imagine the feelings that would come up if this happened to you: first a sort of shocked suspicion as you say to yourself, “Am I seeing what I think I’m seeing?” And then maybe fear, and maybe outrage—“Who left this child here?” And then, as you picked up the scared baby, there would probably be an overwhelming feeling of compassion—a pouring out of your heart in grief and pity for this child.

In the story we heard today, Pharaoh’s daughter became a mother because she was moved with compassion for the baby Moses when she found him in the weeds at the side of the river. We don’t know what went through her head, except that the story says that she took pity on him (Ex. 2:6). But we can imagine ourselves in her place feeling compassion that we cannot ignore or pass by—compassion that takes form in our minds as the thought, “I have to do something about this. I cannot leave this child here.”

Today’s reading from the teachings of the New Church said that a feeling of compassion is an admonition from the Lord (AC §6737). And it said, “when they who are in perception feel compassion, they know that they are admonished by the Lord to give aid” (ibid.). “Admonition” isn’t a word that most of us use ordinarily. Some newer translations say that compassion is an “alerting” by the Lord. But “to admonish” is stronger than “to alert.” An admonishment is more than just a suggestion. It’s a stern call to attention. We sometimes treat that word like it means the same thing as “reprimand,” but we don’t necessarily have to have done something wrong before we can be admonished. An admonition from the Lord is when He comes to us and says, “You must pay attention now.” It’s easy to understand this when we think of finding a baby in the reeds. The compassion moving us in that situation wouldn’t be a vague thing—it would be an urgent, compelling call to act.

It’s appropriate to consider this kind of compassion today, on Mother’s Day. And it only makes sense that Pharaoh’s daughter became a mother because she felt compassion for Moses. We all know what it’s like to see a baby and feel this wonderful feeling of tenderness. We all know that pang you feel when a child is crying and crying. But for mothers, more than for anyone else, these feelings are more than feelings—they’re calls to action. No mother sees her baby reach for her and merely thinks, “Oh, that’s sweet.” Even if she doesn’t always think it consciously, she knows, “My child needs me. He needs my love and my care. I have a deep and even sacred obligation to give of myself.” Being called to act this way is not easy. Being constantly needed is not an easy thing. But mothers do it anyway. They’re on duty all day. They get up in the middle of the night. And sure, sometimes it’s only because they just want this thing to be quiet so they can sleep. But how often, even in the dead of night, does a mother find herself moved with quiet grief for her child’s sadness? That grief is compassion—love being moved by someone else’s pain (cf. AC §5480). Compassion is woven together with motherhood. And so the Lord says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb?” (Is. 49:15).

The Lord doesn’t give us these feelings of compassion just because He wants us to feel sorry for people. He stirs compassion in us to impel us to reach out, to go to the place of pain that we see, to give of ourselves to someone who is in need. Mothers do this better than just about anyone else, but everyone can do it. All of us, when we feel compassion, can choose to lift up our minds and recognize, “I am being admonished by the Lord to give aid.”

And if we truly recognize this admonition, we’ll recognize that we need to understand enough to help out in ways that are actually helpful. It’s easy to think of compassion as an outpouring of feeling that bypasses intellectual processes. But if we just want to feel sorry for someone else without thinking about what we’re doing for them, then our focus is actually on ourselves and our own feelings, and not on the person we supposedly feel sorry for. Real compassion understands that it needs wisdom. Often when a child is crying all you need to do is hold her and show her that you love her. But sometimes the tears are tantrum tears, and pouring out sympathy is not the right thing to do. And of course, if an adult is crying we can’t treat him like we’d treat a child. What starts as compassion inside us will only have a compassionate effect on the world around us if it is married to wisdom.

The internal sense of the story of Moses in the little ark adds a layer of meaning to this idea of compassion as an admonition that may seem a little incongruent at first. In that deeper sense, Moses represents the Lord’s truth. The Writings describe him as “the law of God” (AC §6719ff.).

And because he’s a baby in this story, he represents the law of God when we first start to receive it—when it’s something small and vulnerable in us. The tiny baby Moses was put in an ark or a box of reeds, and the ark was smeared over with pitch, and the whole thing was put in the reeds at the edge of a river. We tend to have a somewhat romanticized concept of this episode, partly because Egypt is an exotic place, but think about what this would actually have looked and felt like: here’s this baby—a beautiful, vulnerable thing—inside a makeshift vessel black with stinking tar, bobbing in the marsh-plants in a river that flowed through one of the most densely populated areas in the ancient world, absorbing all of its filth. It’s a picture of something good inside layers of crude and ugly things. The baby is the law of God, and the ark of reed and pitch that it rests in represents the mixture of good and evil things that make up our minds before we’re regenerated. The river of Egypt represents falsity. We’re full of not-so-great stuff when we begin the spiritual process of regeneration. We “know” a lot of things that aren’t true. There are parts of us that are black and suffocating like tar. But safe and hidden within those things is something beautiful from the Lord.

And when Pharaoh’s daughter sees the ark and investigates, that represents us starting to get curious about the Lord’s truth. And when she finds the baby inside the ark, and hears him cry, and feels compassion, that represents an admonition from the Lord—an admonition to draw the Lord’s truth out of its crude container, out of falsity, and take care of it.

This kind of admonition might seem totally disconnected from the admonition that I described earlier—the admonition present within feelings of compassion, the call to help someone who’s hurting. But it’s not. It’s a deeper kind of call contained within that same stirring of compassion. Compassion is a feeling of grief for someone else’s pain. On an external level that grief is because this person is hurting. But on a deeper level, a level we only become aware of if we’re really listening to the Lord, it’s grief because the Lord’s truth is not present here. “I’ve been looking at reeds and dirty water. But here’s this beautiful thing. Here’s this deeper truth—and it’s been hidden away. But this truth is needed here.”

To think about truth while someone in front of us is in need might seem like a heartless indulgence in our own intelligence. But it’s the absence of the Lord’s truth that causes people pain. The Lord is present with us in His truth, and without Him we hurt ourselves in every imaginable way. His deepest hope for us is that we receive His love, but we can’t do that until we’ve accepted a truth that can hold a place for Him within us—truth that drives away the things that shut Him out. We can’t really believe that He loves us with an unfailing love if a part of us is held captive by the doctrine that God wants to condemn everyone, and only forgives those who take shelter in the atonement that the Son made by dying for us. We can’t have a happy marriage if we think it’s okay to wish that our spouse were somebody else. We can’t become spiritually free if we tell ourselves that there are other forces out there that have made our choices for us.

So when we feel compassion move us, that feeling is an admonition from the Lord. It’s an urgent reminder, the voice of God saying to us, “You need to do something about this. You are called to reach out.” But that reaching that we do takes place on every level. Externally we reach towards the people who need our help, just like Pharaoh’s daughter lifted Moses out of the water. And internally we reach for the Lord, and for His truth. We reach to find the law of God within the mess, and draw it out. So in the same breath, with the same words, the Lord says to us, “Help My people” and “Learn My truth.” Because these two things are one, just as our minds and bodies make one person and one action.

It’s not hard to see that in order to actually be compassionate we need to be wise. In order to actually help someone we need to have some idea of how to help them. We can go a lot of different places in order to learn how—psychology, parenting courses, our life experience—and all of these will have something useful to teach us. But ultimately, truth is from the Lord. The wisdom that we human beings need in order to be happy comes from the Lord alone. So we give everyone around us an immeasurable gift when we draw our understanding of compassion from the truths that the Lord Himself speaks.

And because the Lord’s truth is so essential for our healing and happiness, it’s compassionate to care about whether or not someone else knows the truth. We’re told that we can know that the Lord is working in us internally when, among other things, “[we feel that we have] pity for anyone who is in trouble, and still more for one who is in error in respect to the doctrine of faith” (AC §1102). Our first and foremost responsibility regarding truth is to learn it and live it ourselves. But if we genuinely grieve for someone else’s pain, and we see that there is a truth they don’t know that could help them heal, the decent thing to do is to look for a useful way to share that truth. We tend to tell ourselves “it’s not my business what other people believe”—and often that’s an important thing to remember. But if we end up withholding the truth, or being afraid to talk about it, that’s not compassionate. That’s not heeding the Lord’s admonition. We wouldn’t leave a baby in a river; can we, in good conscience, leave a person mired in falsity without at least looking for a way to lead them out?

It probably seems like we’ve strayed quite a way from talking about mothers, but we haven’t necessarily—because every day mothers everywhere show that they know that compassion is useless without the truth. How often does a mother have to explain, “You hurt yourself because you weren’t looking where you were going,” or, “you need to test the water to see how hot it is before you get in?” Mothers with older and older kids have harder and harder lessons to teach: “Your friends were upset with you because you acted selfishly.” “You have to make this choice. I can’t make it for you.” And also simply, “It’s okay. You’re okay. I may not be happy with everything you’ve done, but I love you.” Within these words is a deeper truth: “It’s okay because the Lord is here, and He loves you.” All truth that is really true has the Lord present within it. And He will call us to share His truth and His presence with our children, and with our friends and our communities, in bold ways and in silent ways. And to lift that light out of the mess within us and around us, and hold it up for the people we love, is one of the most compassionate gifts that we can give.

So when the Lord comes knocking on the door of our hearts, stirring up that feeling within us—the feeling that cries out “Look! Listen?”—how will we answer? How deeply will we draw on the mercy that He Himself pours into us, mercy that isn’t afraid, mercy that seeks nothing for itself—mercy that simply offers love, the piercing kind of love that can reach the heart because it is honest, and it is wise? It’s a frightening call to answer, because we’re asked to love and to give so much. But the Lord asks this of us because He loves all of us. And so He has commanded us, admonished us:  “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12).

Amen.

 

Readings: Exodus 2:1-10; Arcana Coelestia §6737


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