Cultivating Compassion

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost


Exodus 17:1-7

Philippians 2:1-13

Matthew 21:23-32

This week’s scriptures simmer with conflict. Our reading from Exodus finds the “congregation of the Israelites” stranded in the wilderness of Sin, in a decidedly unhappy mood. Water is in short supply, and people know exactly who to blame. Things get so ugly that even after the people drink their fill, Moses names the place “Massah” (testing) and “Meribah” (quarreling).

Sunday’s gospel account from Matthew 21 recounts Jesus’ escalating battle with the religious leaders. Accusatory thrusts and countering questions lead to conversation-ending judgment: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Temperatures are rising. Trouble is on the horizon.

“Conflict” seems an accurate descriptor of our lives these days. Add in “anxiety,” “despair,” “plague” and “politics” to the Google search you won’t be surprised if “2020” pops up as the  likeliest answer. There is literally so much to fight about, it’s hard to know which rock to pick up first. A consequential presidential election. A Pandemic. Ecological disaster. Taking to the streets. Black Lives Matter. A Supreme Court pick.

Sandwiched between Sunday’s texts of conflict, Paul’s words to Philippian believers land like an unexpected gift: “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Philippians 2:1-2)

Is there any compassion among us these days? This Sunday might be a good time for the church to hear about it. The word “compassion” is made up of two Latin words which taken together mean “to suffer with.”  Compassion asks us to suffer with those who are hurting, excluded, broken, grieving. Compassion asks us to go into places that are filled with pain, to cry with those who are miserable, to weep with those who bear loss, to stay with those who have been broken by this harsh world.  Compassion is much more than simply feeling sorry for someone…the word implies action on our part.

Is there room for compassion in the gears of governance? Senator Hubert Humphrey, often thought of as a bleeding-heart humanitarian, was once asked about the role of compassion in national life.  He picked up a long pencil and said, “Just as the eraser is only a very small part of this pencil and is used only when you make a mistake, so compassion is only called upon when things get out of hand.  The main part of life is competition; only the eraser is compassion.  It is sad to say…but in politics compassion is just part of the competition.” (Henri Nouwen, et. al. Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. p. 6.)

This election won’t teach compassion. The Supreme Court won’t instill compassion. Even the pandemic won’t foster compassion. An eraser’s worth of compassion won’t see us to the end. We will only learn to become more compassionate people at the feet of our compassionate God.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:3-8)

 Twelve times in the gospels the word “compassion,” is used of God and Jesus…the word means, literally, guts, bowels, intestines. The ancients believed that compassion was something you felt in your gut. Over and over again we read the Jesus was “moved with compassion” when he came into the presence of people who were sick, demon possessed, grieving.

How do we cultivate compassion?  Paul says we must learn it from the Master…from the One who came to us, who suffered with us and for us.  When Paul considered the depths of this wonderful, mysterious act, his mind turned to the words of a hymn…a song of praise that was making the rounds in the church of his day…Our English words don’t rhyme, and we don’t know the tune, but we still catch the power of the lyrics. 

We can expect the body politic to be wracked with disputes, division, enmity, and panic. Is 2020 an aberration or simply the new normal? This week, in small but intentional ways, make sure that the message of your life and the message of your faith community gives witness to the compassion of Christ.

Lesslie Newbigin said, “The truth of course is that the Church exists in its prime reality from Monday to Saturday in all its members, dispersed through fields and offices and factories, bearing the royal priesthood of Christ in every corner of the world.” With compassion, let us bear the royal priesthood of Christ to the world.

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