Greetings and welcome to Corona Sabbath. This is one of the ways the church is endeavoring to offer spiritual support during these challenging days of COVID-19. We appreciate your feedback and suggestions.
In this summer series on the theme “Grounded” we turn to one of the foundations of faith – compassion.
We listen to a scripture lesson that speaks of compassion from Matthew 9:35-38:
Jesus continued touring all their towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the Good News of God’s reign and curing all kinds of diseases and sicknesses.
At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity because they were distressed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus said to the disciples, “The harvest is bountiful but the laborers are few. Beg the overseer of the harvest to send laborers out to bring in the crops.”
Compassion. This word comes from a Latin root that means “suffer with.” So compassion incorporates the idea of being with someone sharing in their pain.
In the New Testament, several times we are told of Jesus having compassion on the crowds and healing and helping people. In the vignette we heard from Matthew, we are told that “Jesus’ heart was moved with pity. . .” The word translated pity is often translated as compassion, and the literal meaning is ‘to have the bowels yearning.’ We might say to be moved in the gut. Gut-wrenching. Jesus sees the suffering of people and is moved in the gut. He has compassion.
This is one of the grounding aspects of our faith as followers of Jesus. We are people of compassion.
We see this orientation in the God of the Hebrew Bible, always taking the part of widows, orphans, the lowly, the poor, the sick. And we see this orientation in Jesus. He embodies a God of compassion.
It is a core part of our orientation as Christians not to ignore or shy away from pain, individual or social, but to engage pain. To share the sufferings of others. To inquire, to listen, to hear, to be present, to suffering and pain.
Sadly some expressions of Christianity miss this and jump right to dangling the carrot. Here’s what you’ll get if you accept Jesus. This is what is in it for you. Here’s how your problems will be solved. Here’s what it will be like after you die. Come to Jesus!
Frankly, if I visit a church or hear a sermon or go to a church website and see nothing about helping others or doing something for people who are having a hard go of it, as individuals or as victims of the structures of society, I am skeptical about whether the church is really Christian, really about following Jesus.
I’ve been to churches where the people are what I would consider extremely disadvantaged, in this country and in other parts of the world. And you still see the people looking for ways to respond to the needs of others. That is faith grounded in the way of Jesus and the God of Jesus.
The invitation from Jesus is, come follow me. And engage with the pain and suffering of others. Now Jesus was also known as a glutton and a drunkard, so it’s not about being sad all of the time. But it is about being in solidarity with people who are in pain. And even finding joy in that. In the shared mutuality and vulnerability.
As we think of Jesus having compassion on the crowds, who can we imagine Jesus suffering with today? What would he find gut-wrenching today? Surely he would be moved by the crowds demonstrating about the killing of black people by the police. Surely he would be moved by sufferings of people who are victims of systemic racism.
But there is more pain in our midst. And I think Jesus would also be gut-wrenched at the condition of white supremacists like the group that disrupted a racial justice demonstration held by the UCC church in St. Augustine recently. Jesus would also see the pain in the people who have been shaped by hatred.
I think Jesus would also see the pain among those who are are caught up in a system that they know is unjust but feel powerless to change.
I think there are many, many crowds of people today that would move Jesus to gut-wrenching compassion. Jesus shows us about compassion in its fullness. The openness to pain and suffering in all its manifestations. In reflecting on compassion in the book, The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen writes, “Compassion can never coexist with judgment because judgment creates distance and distinction, which prevents us from really being with the other.”
We all experience pain. We are all in need of compassion. And we all have the capacity for compassion. As followers of Jesus, we commit ourselves to cultivating an orientation of compassion for others as well as for ourselves.
And we do this by paying attention. Listening. Hearing. Putting ourselves in spaces where the truth is being shared. And letting our guts wrench.
This is why leaders in the antiracism movement, including those locally, are encouraging conversations. Talk with someone you know about their experiences around race. Talk with people of color if you are Euro American. And ask about their experiences with the police. Or how they feel about the statues and monuments around us. Or things being named after confederate leaders and slave owners. Ask. Listen. Open yourself up to hearing the pain.
Jesus listens. He hears. He sees. He asks no questions about people’s beliefs or rap sheet or pedigree. Their pain gives them cred with Jesus. And he has compassion, is moved in the gut, and responds in ways that are healing. That is who we are as Christians.
While compassion looks altruistic, compassion is also about our healing. Compassion heals the soul of the one who seeks to be compassionate. It is about experiencing our full humanity because to harden our hearts, to not listen, to not expose ourselves to the suffering of others, cuts us off from our fullest, deepest, truest humanity. It makes us less than who we are intended to be and have the capability of being. It diminishes us. Compassion makes us whole. It completes our humanity. And it helps us to get in touch with our own suffering which often times we ignore, quell, or stuff and it eats away at us from the inside and effects our behaviors in ways that we maybe don’t notice or understand. Compassion is a necessary component of the full expression of our humanity.
Many times we reference the teaching in Genesis that each and every person is created in the image of God. And that God is a God of compassion. In a contemporary book about compassion we are reminded:
“God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation. It is the compassion of the one who keeps going to the most forgotten corners of the world, and who cannot rest as long as there are still human beings with tears in their eyes.” [From Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life by Donald P. McNeill, Douglas A. Morrison, and Henri J.M. Nouwen]
Like Jesus, may the compassion of God live in us, heal us, and make us whole. Amen.
As you listen to the music from Hilton which follows, you are invited to notice the thoughts and feelings and that arise for you.
(Click HERE if you wish to see the post containing the video of this text.)