“The Compassion of the Christ”

June 22, 2014


Isaiah 49:13-18

Matthew 9:35-10:8


When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

The experience is familiar.

You walk downtown and see homelessness and brokenness in the middle of prosperity and development. The city has turned a few unused parking meters into “donation stations” but still the corrugated cardboard signs ask: “Can you help?”

Online and in the papers we read of one shooting after another—in schools, in malls, in fast food restaurants. We read of family members calling for sensible, sane regulations. And we read about politicians too afraid to challenge the status quo.

The news reports tell of increasing warfare in Iraq. We remember the great loss of life even as those who took us there the first time insist we need to return.

And we listen to a growing number of reports that tell us the planet entrusted to our care is rapidly reaching the tipping point of climate change even as some still deny reality.

The experience is familiar.

So, too, is our response. Confronted with great need, with growing violence, with instability and inevitability, something like exhaustion sets in. We can’t listen, watch, or feel anymore. The problems on a local, national, or even global level become too many, too great.

It’s hard enough to keep up with everything.

It’s harder still to keep caring.

We want solutions to the problems that beset us. We care deeply about the suffering in the world, but compassion fatigue overwhelms us.

The Hebrew people spoke of rahamim, their word for mercy, for compassion, that derives from a word meaning “womb.” Rahamim evokes a sense of a mother’s deep love for her child. The prophet Isaiah imagines God speaking to the people and asking: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” It’s a rhetorical question, of course, and the assumed answer is “No.” And even as we start to think of exceptions, through Isaiah God continues: “Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.”

God’s love is like this. Through this motherly love, the God of compassion maintains the covenant relationship the people—remembering those cut off in exile, remembering the poor, the hungry, remembering those on the margins whom polite society would like to forget.

The ministry of Jesus incarnates the compassion of God. Confronted with human sickness and suffering, Jesus reaches out, heals, teaches, and feeds. His compassion leads him to bring to other human beings the wholeness that we seek, the wholeness that God desires for all creation.

Look at Jesus as he goes from town to town. Seeing the crowds of people, he has compassion for them because they are—as we are—like sheep without a shepherd. They are harassed and helpless—and a more vivid translation pictures them “wounded and lying exhausted.” As one person says, it is “as if wolves had harried them and left them bleeding because they had no one to lead and protect them.”

When we are wandering and lost, ground down by living or by the often soul-crushing news that we hear—God looks upon us still with mercy from the very womb of the life giving God.

The compassion of Christ comes to us when we suffer.

The compassion of Christ comes to the world in its distress.

The compassion of Christ comes—and you know this, although in some way it surprises us each time we hear it—the compassion of Christ comes into the world through those who follow in Christ’s way, through people like you and me. And it is only as we open ourselves to such compassion that we will also be able to show such compassion to others.

Looking at the harassed and helpless crowds, Jesus doesn’t say, “O.K. I’ve got this one. I’ll take it from here,” setting out to make everything better.

No, he gathers his disciples—that is, those who have been taught, those who have been following along for a while now—and he sends them out.

That is both a troubling and an empowering reality, isn’t it?

Troubling because it means that it’s up to us.

Empowering because it means—well, it means that it’s up to us.

Walter Levin is a businessman who lives in Connecticut. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer, and given three days to live. He survived. And Levine says that when he asked God why he survived, God answered, “I kept you around to help people.”

Maybe that’s the answer that we’re all given. Maybe that’s the call that we have all received. God “keeps us around” so that we might be compassionate.

Or perhaps we should say that rather than “keeping us around,” God sends us out so that we might be compassionate. In its strongest sense, the Greek word that we translate as “sending,” suggests a kind of banishing. The apostles are sent out away from the One they sought to follow, away from their teacher. They are banished even from the small community that they knew for the sake of the world, for the sake of the lost sheep.

They don’t have to go alone, however, and that’s encouraging. It’s always nice to have a little company. Matthew lists the Twelve in pairs, suggesting that they went out together, with mutual support. Peter and Andrew. James and John. And there at the end of the list we learn that even Simon the Cananean had a partner—although, of course, his partner was Judas.

Hang around Jesus long enough—listen to him, watch him, be one who is taught—and you will become one who is sent out as well.

Peter and Andrew.

Simon and Judas.

You and me.

Even when we are sent, we have each other.

Wouldn’t you think, however, if someone were to be sent to harassed and helpless people, wouldn’t you think it would be someone other than you or me? I can think of all sorts of better candidates for the job. We have our own problems. We, too, are beset and besieged.

And yet, this is what we hear: “Go.”

“Go,” Jesus says.

Those who are hopeless;

            those who are weary;

                        those who are afraid;

                                    really, people like you and me at some point;

God sends the most unlikely people.

In our deepest discontent, when we are least satisfied with life as it is, when the pain of the present is finally too much we hear the simple but straightforward call: “Go.”

When we look at this city, this nation, this world—when “compassion fatigue” looms at the edges of suffering—at just such times we, too, hear “Go.”

.“Go,” Jesus says, and gives us a message of good news: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And while this is good news, we might be left thinking, “Wait a minute. Shouldn’t we be doing something? What difference can the nearness of the distance of the kingdom of heaven make to the problems of our world?”

What is Jesus talking about here?

Let’s recognize at first that he’s not talking about “heaven” or someplace where all good people will go when they die if they just do this or believe that. Jesus really isn’t talking about some “place” at all.

The message that the followers of Jesus are to proclaim—our good news is about life here and now—which is not to say that there isn’t also something “there and then” but that is different news than this and a different sermon.

Matthew was writing to a Christian community that was composed mostly of Jewish people. And following the Jewish practice of not speaking the name of God, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the “the kingdom of heaven” rather than “the kingdom of God” that we hear about in, say, Mark and Luke. The kingdom of heaven, the realm of God—the same thing—it is the new reality that is seen in an end to exile, the defeat of evil, and the presence of God with God’s people. It has come near. God’s rule is in the midst of being established in the world that God created and loves.

We are called to announce this as good news. And because it is good news, because the kingdom of heaven has come near, we are called to act in certain ways.

“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”

Of course, it’s quite clear that very few of us are involved in doing any of these things. We have no “board of exorcists” here—and we can only imagine the difficulties the nominating committee would have if we did. The men of the church don’t gather once a month on a Saturday morning to go out and raise the dead—we just eat breakfast.

So we shouldn’t let those first-century specifics become rigid requirements. These are actions that bring God’s wholeness to the world. These are actions that show God’s compassion. They are signs that the living God is establishing a new realm in the midst of a broken, decaying, and dying world.

And this is the point.

Many voices are ready to say that God has abandoned this world and so it doesn’t really matter what we do: we can structure our economy and our society to let the ranks of the poor swell in our city, state, nation, and world as long as our comfort is assured; we can continue to follow the path of ecological destruction for the sake of just such an economy; we can let guns and violence proliferate as we seek our own personal safety.

From Jesus we hear just the opposite. Not only has God not abandoned this world, God is drawing nearer than we would have expected. So, what we do matters. How we act matters now and it matters for the realm of heaven that is being established on earth.

Will we solve all the problems? Of course not. It is a foolish kind of contemporary progressive Christianity that thinks by our actions alone we will bring the realm of God to earth, that suggests were are getting closer and closer to accomplishing that objective. That is not our calling. That is not within our ability.

God’s realm will come in God’s own time.

But we are to announce that this realm of God is drawing near.

We are called not to be solutions, but to be signs of that nearness—to point to what is happening all around us.

What might it look like when we seek to be signs of the realm of God that has come near?

It is not simply a matter of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, nor is it, as someone else put it, oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff.

The Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, has put this as strongly and as clearly as anyone:

You are—strange though it may seem…—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of God’s creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support…all of this will find its way into the new creation that God will one day make.

When we stand with people seeking a just wage…

When we provide one meal to hungry people at the Free Lunch Program…

When we celebrate the equality of all people as we did on the PedMall yesterday and proclaim the love of God for all people as we do here all year long…

We will not solve all the problems. By the grace of God we might solve some and others will be solved by other people. And some will remain. We will not solve all the problems, but by our actions we can be signs to the world of a new way, signs to the world of God’s compassion.

We are sent out, not as conquerors, not as the righteous judges of the world in order to impose our religious perspective on others. We are sent out to lost and wounded and exhausted sheep as sheep ourselves. We are sent out like sheep among wolves. In this situation, we need practical wisdom and a sense of peace.

In the other gospels, after Jesus sends his disciples out we later read of how they returned, filled with wonderful reports of what they’ve done. Not so with Matthew. Oh, we know they must have come back, but there are no glowing reports, no news of success. Instead, we’re left with the sense that, once sent, the followers of Christ are still out there announcing good news. We get a sense that they are still out there, showing compassion with wisdom and in peace.

Sure, the followers of Christ keep getting together, keep showing up at places like this to pray, to sing, to hear, to remember. We need to do that. We just get too weary otherwise.

But as you leave this morning, look around.

Out our doors, into the streets, there go the followers of Christ, sent into the world.

And—good news, amazing news—you are one of them—in wisdom and in peace, a sign to this world of the compassion of the Christ.