Compassion is essential

It had been raining for two weeks, and the forecast called for thunderstorms. Everybody wanted to get a game in. I am unsure of the benefits of organized league sports for four and five year olds, but I signed up to coach.  Lily, with her big purple hair bows that matched our jersey, was set to kick off. Lily was a fierce attacker who skipped back to mid-field after scoring! That Saturday, Lily could not get lined up. The entire team purple horde gathered around a muddy puddle in front of our goal. Our teenage referee blew his whistle and yelled, “Hey, coach! Get your kids lined up.” I called, “Hey, Pirates go to your spot,”: mutiny. Upon investigation, I found my team kneeling around a giant wiggly nightcrawler. It faced grave danger from 14 pairs of cleats. “Tweet- TWEET!” the ref whistled angrily as the opposing teams’ parents’ offered unhelpful complaints! What to do? I cupped my hands and began to make helicopter sounds, “tuca-tuca- tuca”. Kneeling down, I scooped up our worm, airlifting the nightcrawler safely into a grassy culvert. My Purple Pirates made the siren sounds of a police escort for our great worm airlift.  My explanation of our delay did not impress the referee or opposing parents, but we needed to save the worm.

 In a few weeks, our children will take part in Compassion Camp, an online interactive VBS! Will you join me in the daily prayer from Compassion Camp? Let us pray, “Welcoming One, your warm, wide arms are always open, drawing us into your heart full of love. Make our arms your own, helping us see and welcome with compassion all those we meet. Amen.”

Compassion is essential for spiritual life. What if we had ignored that beautiful wiggly nightcrawler? I think my players would have been a little less alive, a little less human, and with less love if we were indifferent to one of God’s creatures! “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, Jesus had compassion because the crowd seemed helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” Compassion reminds us that we are alive. Indifference is  a slow death.  A few months ago, our choir sang a prayer for compassion:

“Lead me, Lord.  Lead me in the paths of peace!

Make your way plain before my eyes for it is you, Lord,…  

You, and you alone, who can make me to dwell in safety.

Lead me always to listen, teach me to live with compassion,…

let me keep a heart that still can feel, and eyes that still can weep.”

(Composed by Gweneth Walker using Psalm 4:8 and 5:8 and from a poem Divine Compassion by John Greenleaf Whittier.)

Lead us to listen. Teach us compassion. Christianity without compassion is dead.. If we dryly quote the Bible without Christ’s compassion we will misrepresent Jesus, even when we get the words right. I have been wondering if numbered Bible verses allow us to quote Bible verses but miss the bigger story of God’s love? Did you know the New Testament got along fine for over 1,000 years without numbered verses?  Originally, there was a kind of chapter mark like a comma embedded in the text. Someone added numbered verses around 1500 CE. Did we subconsciously add numbers in order to turn the Biblical story into a rule book? Numbers make it easier to pluck up a verse and stick it with another verse and then make any point we want. A Love story does not need numbered verses. Law codes do! Laws do not teach compassion, justice, forgiveness, peace, or love. Laws let us justify the status quo. Compassion calls us to action. 

So let’s try  locating today’s passage without “chapter and verse” numbers. After Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount, Christ heals a person with leprosy, heals a centurion’s friend, heals a bunch of people at Peter’s house, stills a storm, heals  the Gadarene demoniac (that is the story of those pigs running off a cliff), heals a paralyzed man, calls Mathew from the tax stand, gets criticized for hanging out with party people, heals the woman who grabbed the tassel on Christ’s cloak, heals two who were blind, and heals a person who could not hear. And so after eight stories of healing, Matthew sums up Christ’s work: “Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching congregations, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. Now when Jesus saw the crowds, Jesus had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then Jesus said to the disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for God’s harvest.” Jesus then called the twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. As you go, make this announcement, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Growing up, I heard many sermons about one verse Matthew 9:37, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for God’s harvest.” Sometimes a fired up camp evangelist conjured up Jonathon Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to scare us into becoming “soul winners”. Compassion was not the focus. Healing every disease was not Jesus’ or our mission. Yet, the story tells us how Christ’s compassion leads to free mobile healthcare and Jesus organizing the disciples to open satellite clinics. Compassion heals. Compassion moves, marches and builds the kin-dom of Heaven. Jesus tells us the kin-dom has come near; it is at hand, growing within us, overtaking our lives, right now, in our midst, on earth as in heaven. 

Try to imagine a scene in which Jesus’ heart hardens upon seeing a crowd sick with diabetes, hypertension, or opioid addiction? Christ is never indifferent to suffering. Jesus does not blame the crowd for being sick or poor! Christ endured police brutality. Indifference or hard-heartedness are the opposites of compassion. Defensiveness, self-preservation, and cynicism are hallmarks of indifference. Hard-heartedness leads to spiritual death.  

Anger is not as deadly as denial or indifference. Carried too long, anger burns away our souls, but anger hopes for change. Hatred does not. Christ grows angry and grieves when a congregation and his disciples lack compassion. (Mark 3 & 14) Anger offers a jolt of power.  Growing up with a learning difference I endured playground bullies. My defense was to grit my teeth, sharpen my tongue, clench my fists and lean in for the fight- preferring fight over flight or freeze.  That fight instinct helped push me through moments of deep pain. Yet, that same burn can do harm. It writes a false autobiography. In 1990 at college, I first heard about white male privilege, I felt that old bullied burn. Using my unnamed privilege I might have said aloud: “You, Ivy League, tenured, summer in Hamptons, grade giver,You do not know my story… you have no idea how Mrs. (name-withheld) read my papers in fourth grade aloud to the class…. I earned this spot”    Yet, she persisted and even challenged me to re-examine my childhood narrative.  In second grade I was placed in a very white university sponsored pilot classroom for dyslexic children, that summer mom drove me across town to summer school, and in fourth grade my parents paid for private Catholic school. I thought about how my black Spanish 301 Conversation Partner rode the city bus with multiple transfers to make it to campus each day. Self-awareness chipped away at my self-made mythology. What would have happened without those advantages that every child deserves?  Compassion fights for everyone.  

People are angry. If you have not gotten angry about the way black people are treated in America, you are lacking in compassion. Centuries of oppression and the failure of so many white folks to acknowledge this systemic discrimination makes compassionate people angry.  If my friend, my spouse, my child, or my colleague can’t tell me why they are angry with me, then our relationship will dissolve. If I do not try to listen and find out why my neighbors are angry,  then I do not love them as I love myself. Compassion listens.  Compassion heals. Compassion opens the way for authentic, safer, and healthier neighbors. Compassion raises our standard of living      

Jesus sees the crowd with compassion. Sometimes, the needs overwhelm us.  The injustice is so deep and long lasting that it seems like nothing will change. Howard Thurman, a black theologian born in 1899, knew America’s original sin of racism had gone on too long. And yet amid the struggle, Thurman offers hope for the disheartened and disinherited. “In Christ is life, and that life, is the light of humanity. Wherever Jesus’ spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage, for Jesus announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, those three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.” Thurman continues, “A person’s conviction that they are God’s child automatically shifts our relationships with everyone.” When we know that God counts the freckles on our cheek and hairs on our head, we come to know that our deepest selves are personalized gifts of God. “Once we know our belovedness, we recognize that to fear another person, whatever power they hold over us is a basic denial of the integrity of our very own life…. (T)he child of God gets a new scale of values. These Christ-shaped scales measure life differently; they measure “true significance” by the way we treat others. As a child of God, we realize the climax of human history comes in Matthew 25, where the inner significance of each of our deeds is revealed to us. We see how our lives impacted all of God’s other children. Compassion sees the belovedness in everyone. Compassion is essential to following Christ. 

Indifference is a spiritual death sentence. Compassion heals. Compassion keeps us alive and calls us to make a difference.  And so, come Lord Jesus, teach us compassion. “Lead us to always listen, teach us to live with compassion…let us keep a heart that still can feel, and eyes that still can weep.”  So that we might build the kin-dom of Heaven on Earth- right now- right here. Let us open free healthcare clinics. Let us cast out the demons of racism, homophobia, and violence. Let us announce the good news that  “Black Lives Matter”. Let us call elected officials and say the days of celebrating Nathan Bedford Forrest must end. Let us read anti-racist books. Let us wear our Covid mask in love of our neighbors and ask the Lord for greater compassion, patience, and forgiveness for the unmasked. Let us not grow indifferent, calloused, or hardhearted and die disconnected from God’s Love. Finally, Let us pray for more workers to join Christ’s kin-dom. There is much work to do- right here, right now, on Earth as in heaven.  And let us close with a prayer for compassion: “Welcoming One, your warm, wide arms are always open, drawing us into your heart full of love. Make our arms your own,helping us see and welcome with compassion all those we meet.” Amen.

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