"Empathy – The Path to Mutual Love": Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

"Empathy – The Path to Mutual Love": Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C

Sep 01, 2019

Passage:Hebrews 13:1-3

Preacher: The Rev. Mildred Rugger

Series: Pentecost

Category: Love, Outreach, Hospitality

Keywords: love, ministry, grace, empathy


Empathy, which is the path to mutual love, allows us to connect to others by understanding their perspective and emotions without judging them or trying to fix them. Empathy is not easy, but it is possible with God’s help.


In the name of God, who is love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer includes a collect asking for help to “inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures.[i] That phrase reminds me of a cow chewing its cud. Cows do that for about 8 hours a day.

I do believe it would take about that long to inwardly digest all the ideas in our Scripture passages for today. Lucky for us all, I will only offer a few thoughts on a small section: the first three verses we read from the letter to the Hebrews:

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

The theme here is “Let mutual love continue.” Sounds like something St. Andrew’s is good at, doesn’t it? We’ve been welcoming “you”, whoever “you” may be, for many years now. And we’ve been trying to walk The Way of Love since before we had that name for it.

We even make a practice of showing hospitality to strangers, including those who live very different lives from our own. Often the hospitality comes in the form of a meal provided without cost – weekly breakfast, monthly sack lunches, Thanksgiving dinner, and other occasional meals. I’m pretty certain we’ve entertained angels, or messengers from God, in the process.

It’s right to recognize what we’re doing well, but I just haven’t been able to stop there. The truth is, this passage has been challenging to me, and I suspect it may be challenging to each one of us.

The part of the passage that I’ve been chewing on has been the last part: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

What does “remember” mean here? It must include the idea of “remember in prayer.” That’s certainly important.

But it also seems connected with what Jesus told his disciples – and us – in Matthew 25.[ii] Remembering those in need involves actions such as welcoming, visiting, giving care, and providing food, water, and clothing.

Who are these people in prison or being tortured? There’s no indication of how they came to be in those situations. They may be innocent or guilty. They may be where they are because of injustice or because of their own poor decisions.

Either way, their lives are limited and full of pain. Prisons are not necessarily buildings with guards, and torture is not necessarily inflicted physically. This passage calls early Christians – and us – to pray for and help all sorts of persons in deep need.

That’s a challenging call, isn’t it? Yet, the passage doesn’t end there. It calls us to pray and help “as though you were in prison” and “as though you yourselves were being tortured.” Wow! So, the path to mutual love is through empathy for those in deep need.

Brené Brown has a wonderful animated talk on YouTube about empathy.[iii] She explains that empathy is the ability to connect with people based on understanding the perspective and emotions of others without judging or trying to fix them.

Empathy, she says, is “a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.”

Does this remind you of our Baptismal Covenant? I’m thinking of the last two questions:

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will, with God’s help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God’s help.

So, I’ve been spending some time with this idea of empathy as the path to mutual love. It’s been, well, uncomfortable.

I’ve been thinking about some of my pet peeves. For instance, when someone is new to a role that I’ve been in for some time, I expect them to look to me for advice, not tell me what they know, as though they could teach me how to perform that role. The nerve! This happened recently, and I snapped at the new person.

A mentor suggested that I think about what it’s like to be the new person, not sure if others will see me as qualified, maybe not even sure if I’m quite ready for this role. Oh, I’ve been there. I must have seemed full of myself in my effort to fit in, but I was actually nervous.

Will I—will we—choose to respond with empathy when the first reaction is irritation? I will, with God’s help.

I’ve also been thinking about some of the hospice patients I see who apparently are dying as a result of addictions. Patients with lung cancer who continue to smoke heavily. Patients whose bodies have been broken by alcohol or drug addictions. And those addictions continue to take a heavy toll on their lives and relationships.

I have to admit that it’s easy to wonder why they don’t quit, why they didn’t quit years ago.

Then, I remember my own addictions—junk food and Spider solitaire. They may seem innocent enough, but my addictions take a toll on my life. And, even though they aren’t chemically powerful addictions, I just haven’t been able to kick them permanently. They provide me a way to escape, sometimes from boredom, sometimes from painful emotions.

What pain have those patients been trying to escape? Doesn’t God love them and want me to love them, whether or not they ever kick their addiction?

Will I—will we—choose to come alongside people in their pain and love them, without judging or trying to fix them? I will, with God’s help.

I’ve been looking at the news from the perspective of empathy. The event in El Paso early last month was hard to take in. I can’t imagine choosing to do that to anyone, let alone people I don’t know just going about their daily business. The manifesto of the man who did that referred to the influx of Hispanics on our southern border.[iv] Well, I’ve lived among, worked with, and loved Hispanics. I sure wouldn’t do that to them.

On the other hand, when I think of people such as the asylum seekers from Central America, I also can’t imagine choosing to uproot myself and my family, especially children, to leave everything we know, and to walk over 2000 miles to an uncertain future.[v]

What emotions seem to drive these situations? There seems to be anger on the part of the man. The asylum seekers seem to be feeling panic. In fact, in both cases, this sounds like “fight or flight”.

Yes, I understand that. On several occasions, fear and insecurity have led me to “fight or flight” reactions. Those reactions have often caused problems for myself and for those around me.

Well, I can’t solve these issues, but I can choose not to inflame the fear and insecurity that surround them.

Will I—will we—choose to speak of the people involved in events such as these with empathy, out of a loving heart? I will, with God’s help.

Finally, I’ve been thinking of ministries such as the PARC, that’s P-A-R-C, or Panhandle Adult Rebuilding Center.[vi] This is one of many fine Amarillo ministries addressing the needs of those who are experiencing homelessness.

People without a home can go to the PARC during the day, take a class, be involved in creative projects, find acceptance and hope, and gain the courage to move to their “next,” breaking the cycle of homelessness.

It’s a place where empathy reigns.

Watch their beautiful online video “Layer Upon Layer” to get a feel for this empathy. St. Andrew’s own Jack Dison is one of the volunteers featured in the video.

Read the director’s regular online updates to be challenged and encouraged about how powerful empathy is. It leads to changed lives.

Will I—will we—choose to minister to people with empathy, out of a loving heart? I will, with God’s help.

Can God really help us show more empathy? Of course. Because the greatest example of empathy is Jesus Christ, who “became flesh and lived among us.”[vii]

Earlier in the book of Hebrews, we are told that he understands our weaknesses and the difficulties of this life. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”[viii] Amen.


[i] The Book of Common Prayer, Collect for Proper 28: Traditional on p. 184, Contemporary on p. 236

[ii] Matthew 25:31-46; see Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, p. 17, “Homiletical Perspective” by Frederick Borsch



[v] See also the statement from the bishops of all 6 Episcopal dioceses in Texas,


[vii] John 1:14

[viii] Hebrews 4:15-16