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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So What is Compassion Anyway?

I’ve spent this week focused on one word from the Gospel lesson appointed for Sunday, compassion.  Compassion is, however, one of those words that gets a lot of use in the church and even in the wider culture, but like love, charity, hope, and narthex, I’m not sure we really know what it means.  Ask the average Joe and Sally on the street to define compassion, and you’ll probably hear something like, “caring for people” or perhaps more pointedly, “responding to someone’s hurt.”  This are both good definitions, but as my friend Evan Garner noted in his blog post on Tuesday, this word has much deeper meanings (pun intended).

“The Greek word for ‘have compassion on’ (in the case of Sunday’s gospel lesson it’s “ἐσπλαγχνίσθη”) and its various forms literally mean ‘disturbed in one’s guts.’ It shares the same root as the word ‘spleen’ because people believed that emotion came from one’s bowels… The word ‘compassion’ in its Latin roots means ‘to suffer with.’ 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.”

It seems as though having compassion means more than just responding to someone else’s hurts, but actually to enter into them, to feel them in your being, to take their pain upon yourself in order to more fully understand and be able to minister to the other.  My friend Candyce found a Fredrick Buechner quote that sums this idea up rather well and shared it on my Facebook wall.

Curiously, the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms doesn’t define “compassion.”  It seems that this emotion that is so closely associated with one of Jesus’ most recognizable miracles would find its way into that go-to resource.  Instead, they saved it for the Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, which has a definition that takes up nearly a quarter of the page.  In it, James Childress quotes Lawrence Blum, Professor of Philosophy at UMass-Boston.  “‘Compassion is not a simple feeling-state but a complex emotional attitude toward another, characteristically involving imaginative dwelling on the condition of the other person, an active regard for his good, a view of him as a fellow human being, and emotional responses of a certain degree of intensity’ and duration” (109, emphasis mine).

All of this to say that after the Haiti Earthquake, when you sent a text message to the Red Cross to donate $10, you may having been doing a good thing, but you weren’t really feeling compassion.  Compassion is hard.  It requires us to give of ourselves beyond our normal capacity, and encourages us to act in ways that are self-sacrificial.  Compassion is the by-product of agape love, which Jesus was able to offer to the whole world, but which I have to work hard to give to even my closest loved-ones some days, but compassion is a hallmark of Kingdom Living.  When Paul attempts to describe new life in Jesus Christ to the Church in Colossae, he invites them them “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, [to] clothe [them]selves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (NRSV).  Or, more to the point of today’s post from Young’s Literal Translation, “Put on, therefore, as choice ones of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies [compassion], kindness, humble-mindedness, meekness, long-suffering…”

Perhaps this would be a good prayer for this weekend, from Proper 6, “Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.”

Compassion Overflows

Are you sensing a theme in this week’s blog posts?  I’m not sure I’ve ever spent a whole week on one word in a lesson, but it seems as though we’re 3/4 of the way there already.  It seems to be striking a cord with y’all as well.  Due to to some technical difficulties over at the Text this Week, I’ve fallen out of the usual rotation.  This doesn’t mean much, really, except my daily readership dropped by about 2/3rds from 150 a day to roughly 60 over the past few weeks.  Thanks to my readers who are keen to share these posts, however, my first two posts on compassion have spike my stats this week with 111 views on Monday and a whopping 240 yesterday!  It seems that compassion, or at least blog posts about compassion, have a way of overflowing.

Of course, we see that vividly in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the Feeding of the 5,000.  As I noted yesterday, Jesus is having a pretty crummy day when, as the hour grew late, his disciples realized that there were way too many people and way too little food.  “Send them to the villages to grab a bite,” they say to Jesus, but he’ll hear nothing of it.  “You give them something to eat,” he responds.  That verb “to give” is in imperative aorist, which somebody much smarter than me tells me means “it is the urgent aorist of instant action.”  “Do it, and do it now,” Jesus says to his worried disciples.  He takes the small offering that they have – five loaves and two fish – and according to the Jewish table custom, blesses the meal and breaks the bread, and 5,000 men plus women and children eat until they are full up.

The story could end there and be sufficient as one of Jesus’ greatest miracles, but it doesn’t.  Matthew goes on to tell us that the disciples went back around to collect up the leftovers, not the crumbs, but the broken pieces handed out to be shared, and they filled up 12 baskets!  What started as compassion for a hurting people turned into an event in which the sick were healed, thousands upon thousands were fed, and a dozen baskets of leftovers were collected!  Compassion certainly has a way of overflowing.

I’m reminded of the old Liberty Mutual “Do the Right Thing” ad campaign, were one act of concern acted as a butterfly effect to change the course of an entire city in a day, and I can’t help but wonder, are my eyes open to opportunities to share compassion, or am I just focused on my own stuff?

Compassion isn’t reserved for the good days

I had lunch with an Anglican Ordinariate Roman Catholic Priest last week.  In our conversation, we talked some about the differences he has seen between his time in The Episcopal Church and Roman Catholicism.  One point that I found particularly interesting was the rubric within Roman rites that the priest, at his discretion, can shorten a scripture reading appointed for any given day.  Episcopalians can’t do that.  Instead, the rubric on page 888 reads “Any reading may be lengthened at discretion.”  While there are plenty of Sunday’s that I’d like the hack and slash the RCL reading, this week, I’m in total agreement with my Rector, who is preaching, that the Gospel lesson should be extended to include all of verse 13.  The opening should read something like, “After Jesus had heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”

The “this” which lacks a direct antecedent and would drive my homiletics professor crazy, is actually an ideal point of entry into this text.  What Jesus heard was that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded by a drunk and horny King Herod.  As Keith noted, “That’s how Jesus’ day started.”  This detail seems pretty important.  It explains the whole “going off by himself” bit.  And it opens the feeding of the [2]5,000 and more importantly, Jesus’ overflowing compassion up to a much deeper interpretation.

This miraculous event didn’t occur on the day Jesus got back from sabbatical.  He wasn’t well rested, full of energy, and feeling good.  No, he was having one of the worst days of his life.  And it was on that day, as he dealt with the emotions surrounding the death of his cousin and he came to grips with the reality that it would soon be his head Herod would be after, that he, out of an overwhelming sense of compassion, healed the sick and helped his disciples feed the crowd of more than 5,000.  Jesus was open to sharing his Father’s love, even on the worst day of his life.

There are days that I wish I could just get in a boat and go off to a deserted place by myself.  There are days that I feel zapped of all compassion.  There are days that I don’t really want to care about somebody else.  And as it happens, those are often the days that my phone rings the most, that the need is greatest, and that I end up being blessed by being a conduit of God’s steadfast love and compassion.  Compassion, it seems, isn’t just for the good days, but maybe especially for the bad ones.