We have so many ways of learning about God. We learn from Holy Scripture, of course. We learn from our worship, from the seasons of the year and the glories of nature, from one another, in our prayers.
There is a way of watching movies that can open our minds and hearts to God in ways more powerful than we might imagine. When we see a movie strictly for entertainment, we've received our money's worth, but when we watch the screen through the eyes of faith, God can touch us in ways that are worth much more, ways that are surprising, even transcendent. Ordinary, commercial films become "Jesus movies."
Take the film, The Green Mile, for instance. The Jesus figure in The Green Mile is obvious, of course. John Coffey, an enormous black man in the South, has been accused of murdering two small girls, and upon his arrest he is delivered to "the Green Mile," death row in a southern prison. It becomes apparent fairly early in the film that John is innocent; he is sweet and what we used to call "simple-minded;" despite his huge size, he weeps quietly at times and is afraid of the dark. He shows tenderness to all but the truly evil ones he encounters on the Green Mile, and after a couple of miraculous healings, there's no doubt in our eyes just who John Coffey represents. He's our Jesus figure in this movie.
Jesus showed us the nature of the Divine as he walked this earth among us. So what can John Coffey show us about the nature of God if we view him through the lens of Christ, praying that the Holy Spirit guide us to any truth?
In Matthew's Gospel today, we learn that "Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness." Matthew continues: "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd."
Compassion. "Com-passion." "Feeling with." Feeling another's pain, another's suffering.
In The Green Mile, one of the several climactic scenes shows us a gruesome execution, one in which a sadistic rookie deliberately omits a step in the electrocution process, essentially cooking a Cajun inmate named Edouard Delacroix, a man for whom John Coffey -- and the movie's viewers -- have developed a fondness. In one of the most graphic death scenes in cinematic history, as Del screams and jolts and jerks and smokes, John Coffey, in his own death row cell, experiences exactly the same torture. He jerks and grimaces as though he were sitting in "Old Sparky" himself. The lights on the Green Mile dim, then burst, as he lives through Del's electrocution from afar.
After the body has finally died and has been removed for burial, the officer in charge of the Green Mile, Paul Edgecomb, returns to his block and walks to John's cell. Sweat pours from John's body; he is still trembling. He says to Edgecomb through clenched jaws, "Boss, Del, he the lucky one. He out of it now."
"Do you mean you heard that all the way down here, John?" asks Edgecomb.
"No, Boss. I felt it," replies John.
John Coffey, our Jesus character, actually felt the pain of his friend. He experienced his torture, as though he had somehow been in the body of Edouard Delacroix.
Com-passion. Feeling with.
"Freely you have received, freely give," Jesus tells the twelve as he send them out to preach and heal those for whom Jesus has such great compassion. We might overhear him saying something like, "Heal every disease and sickness. Cast out evil spirits. Take the message of the Kingdom to those who live on death row every day of their lives. Help me care for them. Have "com-passion" on them. Feel with them. I can't do it all by myself. The task is too great to be done alone, even by me. And it's not God's purpose that it all be done by me. You're in this, too. We can't do it without you. You're going to be my Body on earth soon, so you'd better get out there and start learning what that means before I leave you."
So the followers of Jesus, his disciples, the ones who had left fishing nets and families to follow and learn from this magnetic young man who spoke so winningly of his heavenly Father, these twelve meagerly prepared ones were now to take their first steps as apostles -- those who are sent out to do for the hurting of the world that which Jesus himself wishes done.
As we step into their shoes today, let's listen to this story carefully, because it is our story, too. We are his disciples today and more -- we are his Body. Christ, the compassionate one, is the Head of the Body. Information Central. Where the commands to the Body come from. Unless our own head tells our index finger and thumb to move closer together, we can't do so much as pick up a pencil. We need, as Christ's Body, to listen more carefully to Christ, our Head.
What is Christ telling us? To go out and be do-gooders in the name of the church? No! Some folks see this passage as a mandate for evangelism, and that can look scary, even impossible, especially for Episcopalians. During the Decade of Evangelism, the 90's, someone was heard to say that an Episcopal plan for evangelism was to build a really attractive aquarium next to the ocean and then wait for the fish to jump in. That's not what Jesus is calling us to here.
Jesus is sending us out to do the work that springs from a heart filled with compassion, with empathy, with doing our best to experience another's pain. We can never reach this ideal, of course; each person's pain is unique. But the heart of the compassionate Christ, which is and must be our own corporate heart, has no place for criticism, for judgment, even for merit. We help those who need help, not those we deem worthy of our help. It is not our own help we offer, of course; we are merely the vehicles for Christ's healing touch, his saving grace, his Word of hope.
As we move more deeply into our identity as Christ's Body, as 21st century apostles, in this work of embodying Jesus today, church growth is a side effect of Christ's impact on those we encounter. Evangelism happens because the "evangel" is Good News indeed! And as we do the will of the one who sends us out, our own lives become daily more filled with the love and grace of our Savior.
Freely we have been given, not deserving. Freely and with compassion we are called to give. The harvest is plentiful, and we are the laborers today in a field filled with weeds and hungry for the harvest. Shake off the dust and let's go!