The Guts of Compassion – a sermon

You can listen on the Saint Paul’s website or read on. Apologies to Evan and the others who will loss out because I couldn’t get footnotes to transfer.

If you read my blog, then you already know that I’ve been obsessed with the word “compassion” this week. I tried to escape it, but it just kept calling me back in, deeper and deeper. This is probably explained by the fact that the word shows up three times in our lectionary texts this week, but more likely it is because this week has been rife with opportunities to feel compassion: Investigators trying to get to the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 were turned back for four straight days to due civil war and the threat of land mines; a young girl and her father died after being hit by a plane while walking Venice Beach; one of the leading Ebola specialists in the world died from the disease; fighting continues to rage in Gaza; and the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) is killing scores of Christians and destroying thousand year old shrines every day. There used to be a bumper sticker that read, “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention.” These days it could read, “If you aren’t moved with compassion, you might be dead.”
As I spent this week thinking about compassion, I began to realize that it was one of those words that gets a lot of use in the wider culture, but like love, charity, hope, and narthex, I wasn’t sure I knew what it actually meant. When asked what compassion means, most of us would probably say something like “caring for other people” or “responding to someone’s hurt.” We tend to think about actions that can be taken in the name of compassion: texting a $10 donation to the Red Cross after a natural disaster, donating blood for a friend who’s been in an accident, or packing hygiene supplies for the homeless. The more I read and prayed and thought about compassion this week, however, the more I realized that compassion is something much deeper. You haven’t heard much etymology from the pulpit in a while, so you’ll have to bear with me for a moment.
You can blame the next 150 words or so on my friend and partner in Bible Blogging, Evan Garner, who did some research earlier this week and found out that the Greek word which gets translated as “compassion” in today’s Gospel lesson shares the same root word as “spleen” or “bowels” and literally means “to be disturbed in one’s guts.” Just as at one time, love was thought to actually flow from the heart, compassion, love, and pity were, in the ancient world, associated with the intestines, a feeling that bubbled up from down deep within. Then there is the English word “compassion” which has its root in the Latin word “compati” that means “to suffer with.” As Evan put it, “Suffer, in that sense, has to do with feeling something or to be affected by something—not just to endure the pain and trial of a situation. If I suffer with you, it means I am touched by your circumstance. I cry when you cry. I rejoice when you rejoice.”
That text message to 90999 that gives $10 to the American Red Cross was a nice gesture, but I’m afraid to tell you, it wasn’t compassion. Compassion means more than just responding to someone else’s hurts, but rather to actually enter into their pain, to feel it in your being, and to minister to them from the midst of that struggle. Compassion is hard. Compassion requires us to give of ourselves beyond our normal ability to do so. In the story of the Feeding of the 5000, were told Jesus was moved with compassion, which given the circumstances, might be an understatement.
Our Gospel lesson this morning begins with a curious turn of phrase, “When Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Did you wonder what “this” was referring to? It is always difficult when a lesson begins with a pronoun whose direct antecedent isn’t included. The “this” that Jesus heard was that his cousin and co-conspirator in the Kingdom, John the Baptist had had his head served up on a platter by Herod the puppet king of Galilee. When Jesus heard this, he realized that the game had changed. No longer could he walk around assuming his own safety. No longer could he count of a steady stream of would-be supporters coming up out of the baptismal waters of the River Jordan. On this day, as Jesus dealt with the emotions surrounding the death of his cousin and as he came to grips with the reality that it would soon be his head that Herod would be after, Jesus tried to retreat for some time to reflect, pray, and regroup.
The crowd probably didn’t know what was going on in Jesus’ life at that moment so they were unable to have any compassion on him. Instead, they followed after him because they needed Jesus. They needed to hear his message of hope. They wanted to be healed of their various diseases, and so they followed Jesus out into the wilderness in the hope that he would help them.
On what had to be one of the worst days of his life, when all he wanted was to have some time alone with his Father, Jesus saw the crowd that followed him and had compassion on them. Not text message donation compassion, but compassion that started deep down in his belly and flowed forth to each and every member of the multitude. Compassion is a natural by-product of agape love; the self-sacrificial love that Jesus was able to have for complete strangers and that I sometimes struggle to maintain for even my closest loved ones. Compassion is a hallmark of the Kingdom of God, for as the Psalmist tells us, it is part of the very nature of God. “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. The LORD is loving to everyone and his compassion is over all his works.”
Jesus, God the Son, even on a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, was able to reach out in love and compassion. He felt the pain of those who had been ostracized because of their illnesses. He suffered with those who were afflicted in any number of ways, and he healed them. And then, as the day drew to a close and his disciples realized there were way too many mouths to feed on only five loaves of bread and two fish, Jesus had compassion on his friends and invited them to share in a miracle.
Jesus is the Son of God, and we are not. He was able to have compassion even in the worst of times, and the truth of the matter is that there are days that I wish I could just get in a boat and go off to a deserted place to stay by myself for a week or more. But as it happens, those days are the days that my phone rings the most, that the need is the greatest, and that I end up being blessed by being a conduit of God’s steadfast love and compassion.
I know it’s a part of my job to be compassionate, but I also know that my experience isn’t solely because I’m ordained. There are plenty of you out there who know exactly what I’m talking about: who know that feeling deep down in your gut; who reach out in love and care, sometimes even to total strangers. Compassion is an attribute of God and a hallmark of his Kingdom. The next time you have that feeling in your gut, even if it comes on a really bad day pay attention to it, allow yourself some time and space to suffer with someone else, and take your place in the long line of compassionate souls who have been fed by Jesus Christ. Amen.

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