Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields.” Matthew 9:35-38Let’s do a little compassion exercise together. If you prefer not to participate then that’s fine. Participate as fully as you feel you are able to. I invite you to become aware of yourself: Be aware of your own body and how you feel at this moment, aware of the people that sit near you, aware of this building, its particular smells and sounds, and if it helps you to become more aware I invite you to close your eyes.
Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 14:14
Then Jesus called his disciples and told them, “I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way.”15:32
I’m going to give to you a series of situations that I want you to consider and feel in your body. I’ll invite you to say a phrase in the quietness of your own mind, after each of these situations:
The first person that I want you to focus on is a 12 year old Iraqi boy whose name is Ali Abbas, who not long ago lost his entire family and both his arms when a rocket hit their home. I invite you to say, “Just like me, Ali has known deep sadness and fear.”
The second person is a 15 year old girl whose name is Maria. She lives in Honduras where she works 12 hours a day without any overtime pay, and no access to drinking water. She is paid 50 cents an hour to make jeans. She does that unprotected from exposure to dangerous chemicals. Say to yourself, “Just like me, Maria is trying to avoid suffering in her life.”
The next person I want you to focus on is a politician with whom you have very different views. Say, “Just like me, he or she is human and learning about life.”
The next situation is a friend, family member or a colleague with whom you find yourself in conflict. It could be a recent conflict or a past argument. With that person in mind say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking joy and meaning in life.”
Finally, focus on a person next to you, either left or right, front or back, and with your focus on that person say, “Just like me, he or she is seeking happiness in life.”
You can now open your eyes. I wonder for whom is it easier to feel compassion: those farther away from us or those closest to us? Even within our own church family, so many people are suffering. My heart breaks for so many of you. I’m sure your hearts break for each other. Sometimes I get to the point where I consider the situations that each of us face, and it almost seems too much to bear. It seems that there’s not enough room in the world to hold all the pain we experience. Yet, the central symbol of the Christian tradition is Jesus on the cross. When we move beyond the notion that Jesus died to appease God’s wrath at our sins and begin to see the Jesus on the cross as a human being holding the suffering of the world in his body, then we better understand the compassionate love of God. , in a sense each of us holds the pain of the world, just as Jesus held the suffering of the world in his body. Compassion is the deep desire for the suffering to come to an end. That is a central theme in our own Christian tradition.
What does compassion mean to you? I remember when I began to learn about the difference between compassion as charity and compassion as empowerment. It was right before my 28th birthday. I worked in a small rural church – I’d been there for about a year. One day I met Jennifer, and 18-year old mom with a daughter who was just a few months younger than Zoe. When Jen was 17, she was romanced by a 30-year-old man who got her pregnant. They lived together, unmarried, trying to raise their new daughter. Rumors had it that the boyfriend was abusive, so Chris invited Jen to a mother’s group to get her out of the house and meet some people in the community. That afternoon, when I came home from work, Jen was sitting at our kitchen table with Chris and Zoe. Jen decided to leave her boyfriend who, according to her, was verbally and emotionally brutal. She was like a prisoner in her own house and she wanted out. Since she was still 17 and a minor, her decision posed some unique challenges. Jen quickly learned the “system”: social services, WIC, welfare, and family court. We gave her grocery money to help her get by. Chris watched her baby for free. The deacons bought Christmas gifts for Jen and her baby. Family Court eventually awarded her full custody. When she wasn’t living with a family member, she and her baby stayed at a sleazy hotel room, funded by Social Services. After a few months, Jen moved back in with her boyfriend. I guessed she would rather live with the abuse than live with the alternative. She also got used to our charity, still expecting us to give gifts, watch the baby, and fund her reckless decisions. When we heard she moved back, I felt so naive. It felt like all of our compassion was for nothing. My compassion moved me to give charity, but was she ever empowered to be a better person, a better mother, a healthier member of our community? Did we do the right thing? Did we help her like Jesus would have helped her?
Pity or empowerment? I also learned the difference from Brett. One Sunday morning, right before the beginning of worship, a woman pulled me aside and told me that her stepson Brett had tried to kill himself again by jumping off a three story building. Two weeks later I visited Brett at a hospital in Buffalo, right after the last of his extensive reconstructive surgeries. Brett was a handsome, 22-year old whose eyes told the whole story. He was broken, His body was crushed. His emotions were tormented by depression and loneliness. His spiritual life was non-existent. Turned out, he had not tried to kill himself. He was running away from a drug deal gone bad, and tried to leap off the roof to get away. in these situations, there is really nothing to say. I can’t lecture the guy on his bad decisions. He has family for that. No need to heap guilt or to be manipulative. I wanted him to know that there is a real God who wants him to know a sense of belonging, total love and acceptance that comes in yielding one’s life to God. What to do, when moved with compassion but you don’t know how to show it? What to do when you get one chance to say the right thing, and you end up just sitting silently listening, trying to be a friend, trying to how some understanding? Could he be empowered to change his life? To be a better person? A healthier member of our community? Could I help him like Jesus would have helped him?
Jesus had a way of seeing potential in people: Street women, tax collectors, lepers, the insane, and the neglected. Jesus saw value in each of them. He showed compassion. He showed charity and he empowered. Can I do that? Can I show compassion without condition or restraint? Even if it means being taken advantage of? Even if it means giving of that which I value?
I’ve learned something very important through these two situations. I had not gone on my own inner journey. I hadn’t worked out why I needed to help. I had not been honest about my own needs and motives before I offered to fix someone else’s mess. So the compassion I offered was more like charity. Charity is when I do something to someone. Whether it helps the other or not, charity makes me feel better. Empowerment is when I help others to help themselves. There is a place for both. There is a place for helping even when we don’t have our motives completely checked. I would rather see someone helped even out of selfish motives. But compassion is so much more profound if we can help people help themselves, and to do it out of a deep inner mindfulness.
If you are having a dream in which there are 1000 people starving, there are two ways that you can stop their suffering. The first way is that in your dream, you can feed them. The second way to stop the suffering is for you to wake up. The minute that you wake up, their suffering ends. We have to do both. We have to wake up and understand ourselves and what motivates us. We also have to feed 1000 people. We have to do both and somehow find that right balance between practical action and personal awareness.
As you consider your own life, consider what your faces of compassion are. Compassion can be soft and nurturing, and at the same time it can be tough love. Compassion can be receptive and listening, or it can be active and practical, or anywhere on that spectrum. Compassion can be deeply patient, or recklessly impatient. Compassion can be sitting with someone, or to taking someone’s hand and leading. There are so many faces to compassion. I want you to consider how you show it. Where do you find yourself effective and skillful in expressing compassion for others? Compassion can be neat and clear. Compassion can be messy and clumsy. Above all else, compassion is about presence. Compassion is about being with someone through the trials of life, even when there is nothing to be said and nothing to be done.
As we take time to consider our giving to TCC, I hope we can give out of compassion. You know, sometimes the biggest stumbling block for nonbelievers is not Christ, but Christians, not God, but the fact that the church, in its hour of prosperity, does so little to alleviate the suffering of the world. We are trying to change that here. I hope you know that as you give to the church, you empower us to do great things. Yes, we pay staff, operate and upkeep our buildings, pay utilities, mow the grass and plow the parking lot. We also educate our children in values like love, social justice, faith, and service. We feed the hungry and clothe the naked. We serve our community and extend our hospitality. We try to make the world a saner place, a more loving place, a more equitable place. The resources you give empower us to demonstrate our understanding of Christ. Your compassionate gifts empower TCC to give back to you – to empower you to be a better mother, a better father, a better spouse, a better member of the community, a better friend, a better child of God, a better human. Our giving helps us realize that in Christ there are no insiders and outsiders. We are one nature, one flesh one grief, one hope.
I know, we worry about money. We think of all the things we can’t do. We do not have to worry about compassion. It exists in abundance. Wake up to it. Reach out and share it. Live it. Become it. In so doing, you will be part of the transformation of the world through service, justice and compassion.