The Power of Empathy | Sermon from 9/30/18

I love James Madison University.

For some of you, this will come as no shock at all. They’re my football team, they’re located in the beautiful Shenandoah valley, they’re absolutely amazing. I suppose I’m nostalgic about it, too, because it was where Dana and I spent our first two years of marriage, it was where we made two life-long friends, it was where we built a life for ourselves for the first time. We’re going back there later this week for a fall break vacation and I can’t wait for Thursday to arrive.

I went there a decade ago to pursue a graduate degree in higher education leadership. That particular degree required a focus in counseling. In fact, the degree had more counseling courses required than it did leadership courses. So, in the spring of my first year, I took the first two counseling courses. Counseling Theories I excelled at. I ate up the book, loved everything I read, and fell in love with Carl Rogers.

Counseling Techniques I bombed. I was a miserable failure at that course. By the end of the semester, I’d pulled an A out of the course, but I spent the first several weeks failing miserably. I was a miserable counselor. We would learn about various techniques and then be required to try them out on each other in mock counseling sessions that were recorded. The recordings were then watched during a class session and our peers and the professor would give feedback. Each time mine would come up, I got lambasted. The professor absolutely took me to school. But why?

The answer to that question is the same as the lesson from our text this morning. In it, we encounter the climax of the story of Esther, a biblical story that reads like a prime-time political thriller with elements of a soap opera. Before I read the scripture, let me recount for us what’s happened prior to this moment. The story of Esther takes place during the exile, when the Jewish people are living in the Persian empire against their will. In this particular story, there’s a group of Jews who are living in Susa, the capital city of Persia.

King Ahasuerus, also known as King Xerxes, which is how I’ll be referring to him because it’s tremendously easier to say, had dismissed his queen Vashti for insubordination. Word is sent out to the kingdom that the King desires a new queen. Mordecai, Esther’s guardian, encourages her to try out for the role of queen. She does and she gets it. The King not only finds her desirable, he falls in love with her. Thus Esther becomes Queen of Persia. But there’s a catch that will be important later: Mordecai tells Esther to hide her ethnicity and she agrees. Xerxes has no idea he’s chosen a Jew to be his Queen.

After she becomes queen, Mordecai is sitting at the gates of Susa one day and overhears two of the King’s men conspiring to assassinate him. He alerts the palace and the two men are taken care of. Mordecai is a hero! At the same time, Haman is promoted to the role of vizier; second to the King. He decrees that all who encounter him must bow before him. When he passes Mordecai, again sitting at the gates of the palace, Mordecai refuses to bow.

This enrages Haman. He decides that the only solution is genocide: killing all the Jews all around the Persian empire. He goes to the King, telling him that there’s this population spread out across his empire who are unpatriotic and thus disloyal and bent on overthrowing his regime. This convinces the king who signs an order for all Jews across the Persian empire: men, women, and children, to be slaughtered and their possessions looted. The order states a date in the near future for this to occur.

Mordecai gets wind of the plot and, through a messenger, gets word to Esther. His words, as they discuss the issue, come with the most famous verse in all of Esther. Mordecai, trying to convince Esther to take action to save her people, says, “who knows, Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (4:14b) This convinces Esther who launches a plan to get the King to stop the genocide.

In the midst of executing her plan, King Xerxes gets insomnia. He asks for the annals of the empire to be read to him. At one point, the reader gets to the recording of Mordecai’s heroism in revealing the assassination plot. Xerxes asks if anything was ever done to reward Mordecai. The answer was no, so the King decrees that Mordecai should be honored like a visiting king. And so he is, which furthers Haman’s humiliation.

Haman, then, decides not only will there be genocide, but prior to that, he’ll make a special example of Mordecai. He builds a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. While he’s getting ready to execute Mordecai, Esther throws a second banquet for her, Xerxes, and Haman; the end of her plan to save her people.

That banquet is where we find ourselves in chapter 7. Hear now the climax of this story:

Scripture

Esther has saved her people! She has tricked Haman into coming to the banquet because he thinks the queen is honoring him and elevating his status. She knew he’d think that, which is why she put the three of them together. She’d actually held a banquet prior to this to convince Haman she was a friend. Then, at the second banquet in our scripture, she springs her trap and Haman falls right in.

But let’s back up for a second. It’s a biblical story, so we expect that the Jews will be saved and we expect Esther to be the heroine that she absolutely is. It took tremendous courage and guts to do what she did because to approach the King like this, as a woman, even though she’s queen, risked her status and even her life. Especially because she’s now out of the closet: he knows he has a Jew for a wife.

So consider this: why doesn’t Xerxes react in anger toward Esther? She deceived him. He might feel conned, marrying what was considered an inferior ethnicity, one now condemned to death. Why didn’t he hand her over to Haman to be executed along with the rest of the Jews who would soon meet the fate of ethnic cleansing? That’s terrible, but I think we’d also understand if the King was angry.

And consider this: why doesn’t Xerxes stand by his edict for that ethnic cleansing. Haman had him convinced that Jews were a threat to the stability of his empire. They were unpatriotic! They were different! They must be rid of them before the Jews went through with their plan to overthrow the king. Haman’s got him convinced. Nothing Esther says undoes that fact. Nothing Esther says would abate his fears of rebellion by the Jews. Nothing Esther says would convince him that her people would now be loyal. It’d be understandable, perhaps even more understandable, if the King reacted by keeping the edict in place, stating that ethnic cleansing was the only way he could ensure the stability and longevity of the Persian Empire.

If that sounds crazy, consider a modern day example. In Myanmar right now, the country formerly known as Burma, there’s an incredibly similar event taking place. Before I spell out the details, let me make clear one thing: there’s such a thing as a Buddhist terrorist. We are very familiar with terrorists who claim Islam as their religion, but every religion has their terrorists. Buddhism is much more than the meditation and zen gardens we associate with it. In Myanmar, it’s the dominant religion and expresses itself in an oppressive way.

But on the eastern side of the country, on the border with Thailand, there’s an ethnic minority called the Rohingya. They’re Muslim in faith and very different from the dominant culture of Buddhists in that country. The Burmese military has begun a process of ethnic cleansing that some are calling a genocide as they push the Rohingya out of their country. Why?

Because, like Xerxes and the Jews, the government, and the leaders of Buddhism in Burma, have decided that the Rohingya are disloyal, unpatriotic, and ready to rebel to take over the country at any moment. Some Buddhists monks have taken to terroristic activity, which is what leads some to call this a genocide. To date, more than three quarters of the Rohingya have fled to Thailand escaping persecution and death.

Independent observers have noted that there’s no cause to believe that the Rohingya are any of the things the Burmese government alleges at them. And yet, the government remains convinced, the people by and large remain convinced, and the national religion supports the endeavor. This is uncannily similar to the story of Esther, where the Persians are the Burmese and the Jews are the Rohingya.

There’s ethnic cleansing, possibly even genocide, happening right now like what threatened Esther and her people. For me, hearing that story this week brought to life the position of Esther. And the heroism it took to confront the king when the government has aligned itself against a people stating that they’re a threat to stability and sovereignty also came alive. It was a mighty feat for Esther.

But it doesn’t address the question of why the King took her side. Xerxes could have dismissed her, could have exempted her from the edict, could have gotten angry at her deception, could have condemned her to death with the other Jews, all in the name of maintaining the stability and sovereignty of his empire. In fact, dispassionately, perhaps doing so makes more logical sense.

But he doesn’t. In his interaction with Esther, he demonstrates what I lacked in my counseling techniques class. He demonstrates an essential relationship skill that seems weak but is, in fact, incredibly powerful. He shows empathy.

Empathy is different from sympathy. To be sympathetic is to pity the other person, to feel sorry for the other person. It’s to look at someone else’s pain and say or think, “that stinks!” You might even say that to the person. And then you move on with your life.

Empathy, however, is to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. When someone is suffering, you suffer, too. When someone is struggling with something, you struggle, too. When someone is facing danger and fearful, you’re facing that danger with them, experiencing their fear. Empathy is far more powerful because it’s not pity; it is, in fact, trying to understand the world through the eyes of another.

Empathy is, perhaps, the most powerful tool in relationships. In a marriage, if we can understand the world through the eyes of our spouse, we deepen the relationship because then we understand why our spouse gets offended when we say a particular thing, or why she needs lots of compliments, or why he is so hard on himself. Instead of deciding we already understand someone, we approach the other with an attitude of not understanding, trying to get into their skin, walk a mile in their shoes, to really understand what life is like for them and what makes them tick.

That was the problem in my counseling techniques class. I heard someone talk about a problem they were facing and decided my job was to solve it. Any of us in this room with any counseling training at all know that is the opposite of what you’re supposed to do. We can’t fix other people’s problems. Only they can. We can merely point at potential solutions, but even then, that’s not nearly as powerful at affecting change as deep listening and empathy.

That’s because when we feel that we’ve been empathized with, meaning that we feel like someone has done the work to understand the world as we see it through our eyes, we feel deeply validated, deeply understood, deeply loved.

And that’s what Xerxes does for Queen Esther. His love for her carries the day. That love enables him to empathize with her and her people, taking the righteous action to stop the genocide, save her and her people, forgive her for the deception, and remove Haman from his kingdom. And note he doesn’t raise the issue of deception. That’s because empathy doesn’t require the other to change who they are; it simply asks that we see the world through their eyes, but healthy relationships don’t demand that the other change to fit us. That’s true love, the kind between Xerxes and Esther.

His love for her isn’t the mushy feelings like when we fall in love, which is itself a poor phrase. Love is commitment, it’s covenant. The basis of God’s love for the Jews is covenant: a commitment to always be their God and for them to always be God’s people, no matter how much hurt they might do to the heart of God, no matter how much God might dislike them at times, God remains committed to them.

That’s what love is. We often mistake like for love, as if love is primarily a feeling. It may begin that way, but love that’s real love is a commitment, a covenant, to always remain in relationship. That means there are times we are in love with someone and can’t stand them, because real love ties us together. And that comes, as is deepened, by practicing empathy.

Xerxes demonstrates that kind of love to Esther. From all the people, Xerxes chose Esther. Among all the populations of the world, God chose the Jews. And through Jesus Christ, God chose you, and me, and us all. Love, commitment, covenant, carried the day because Xerxes, Jesus, and God all empathized. They took the moment to understand what life was like through the eyes of Esther or through the eyes of a sinful human being. And in doing so, they gained compassion, empathy, and moved with their power to provide.

That’s the power of empathy. It deepens our relationships in love. It grows us together no matter how different we may be because it teaches us to understand the world through the eyes of another. f we can empathize, we can love, no matter how different we are.

That’s what stands out to me about the interaction between Xerxes and Esther. He would have been well within his rights to choose his values for stability and sovereignty over his love for Esther. But he instead let love guide him, because of his empathy. He still, I’m sure valued stability and sovereignty and, indeed, later in the story he acts for just those things. His values didn’t change, but his love for her was greater than his need to adhere to his values; greater than his need to be right.

Consider this: if God had chosen values over love; if God had decided that being right was more important than being in relationship, God would never have sent Jesus. We would be irredeemable. There’s no way any of us could ever match up to God’s values enough for God to say, “ok, now you can be in relationship with me.” There’s no way for any of us to be right enough to be in relationship with God. But that’s not what God said. In Jesus Christ, God said that love for his creation, empathy for our plight as sinful human beings, mattered more than being right. So God sent himself to be among us, to die for us, and to pave the way through resurrection for our own new life in him. God empathized with us.

That’s the power of empathy and love in relationships. That’s the power of commitment. Empathy should characterize our relationships. If it does, we find our relationships tend to grow stronger, deeper, and we are changed for the better. If it does not, then we tend to find much trouble in our relationships, we tend to struggle with lots of fights and awkwardness in significant relationships.

It can be challenging to show empathy in our relationships. Especially if a cherished value is threatened, like when Xerxes’s value of stability and sovereignty was threatened. But our love should be stronger and our commitment deeper than our values and, if we have practiced empathy, that will be the case. Empathy is what God showed us through Jesus, and so we are empowered to do the same.

Today, does empathy characterize your relationships? When someone is very different, or when a significant relationship offends, or when you just can’t understand why your child or parent is acting like they are, does empathy, trying to see the world through their eyes, characterize your response?

Let empathy guide you. Walk a mile in each other’s shoes.

Empathy is powerful. Choose empathy today and watch your relationships grow in love.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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