Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Don’t you love that verse from Psalm 103? “The Lord is compassionate and gracious; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Throughout the Old Testament we discover God’s compassion and graciousness. Jesus literally embodied the compassion of God. He was the incarnation of God, so we learn even more of God’s compassion toward humanity when we study how Jesus treated others. Jesus interacted with others. He was with people, helping them, ministering to them, concerned about them. Many times religious people become misguided and feel as if the way to Christ is through solitude. Yes, there are different types of spirituality, and many call for moments of solitude and rest away from others. Jesus took breaks from others to pray and find rest. But his whole life did not consist of solitary meditation. He would encounter people and speak directly to their greatest needs. The disciples in the early church learned that the best way to find Christ was to help others.
“You will have found Christ when you are concerned with other people’s sufferings and not your own,” wrote Flannery O’Conner. She was defining Christian compassion. How do you define compassion? Do you think of it as an idea? An emotion? Or do you believe that it goes farther than that? Becoming concerned with the sufferings of others more than your own is finding Christ, I agree with her. I believe that compassion means going beyond a mental concept or simply a feeling. It becomes real when it is enacted.
In James Moore’s Book, Sometimes Things are Too Good Not to Be True, he told the story about two men, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Thompson, who were both seriously ill in the same room of a great hospital. Both had to be kept unusually quiet and still – no reading, no radio, certainly no television and no visitors. Their only entertainment was to talk to each other.
Mr. Thompson had to spend all his time flat on his back. Mr. Wilson, on the other hand, as part of his treatment, was allowed to sit up in bed for an hour each day. His bed was next to the window, and every afternoon, when he was propped up for his hour, he would pass the time by describing to Mr. Thompson what he could see outside. And Mr. Thompson began to live for those hours. Mr. Wilson would look out the window and describe
– a beautiful park with a lake, where there were ducks and swans and children throwing them bread and sailing model boats;
– softball games and football games and kites flying;
– flowers and trees and stretches of grass and young lovers walking hand-in-hand;
– the skyline of the city off in the distance and the cars and horse-drawn carriages making their way through the park.
One day, there was a parade, and Mr. Wilson described every float, every band and all the participants in the procession. Mr. Thompson listened intently, enjoying every minute. He could visualize everything Mr. Wilson described. Then one afternoon, Mr. Thompson thought to himself: Just wait a minute! Why should Wilson have all the fun? Why does he have all the pleasure? Why does he get to be by the window? In a few days, Mr. Thompson turned sour. He was bitter, angry, and resentful. He brooded and seethed. He became obsessed with wanting to be by the window! And each passing hour, he became more and more resentful of Mr. Wilson. Then one night, quite suddenly, Mr. Wilson died. His body was taken away the next morning. As soon as it seemed decent, Mr. Thompson asked if he could be moved to the bed next to the window. So they moved him, tucked him in, made him quite comfortable and left him alone. The minute they’d gone, Mr. Thompson struggled to prop himself up on one elbow so he could look out the window. Imagine his surprise. It faced a blank brick wall! Sometimes compassion is most powerful when it surprises. Will you try something during the next few days? In the spirit of Jesus, will you surprise somebody with your love and compassion? Jesus surprised people with his compassion, and so can we.
So many times in his ministry we find Jesus being compassionate. It begins with that concern and care, Jesus did more to make the compassion come alive, he didn’t just feel compassion, he acted upon it. He touched, healed, helped, and cared about others in a very tangible way. When Jesus encountered people, such as the crowds of people in the feeding of the five thousand, he was “moved with compassion.” In Matthew 20
Jesus was “moved with compassion” for two blind men. Once in Luke 7 he met a woman whose only son had died, and he was “moved with compassion for her,” and in Luke 10 Jesus tells us that the Good Samaritan was “moved with compassion.” This is how God wants us to react to the world.
If only we could react as Jesus did, but we know that we are far from it. Leo Tolstoy once wrote, “I beheld the misery, cold, hunger, humiliation of thousands of my fellow human beings … I feel, and can never cease to feel, myself a partaker in a crime which is constantly being committed; so long as I have extra food while others have none, so long as I have two coats while there exists one person without any … I must seek in my heart at every moment, with meekness and humility, some opportunity for doing the job Christ wants done.”
Part of the church’s job is to provide you with opportunities to do what Christ wants to be done. Have you considered ways to serve others through the church? There are almost 50 agencies that the Outreach committee has chosen to support. Each of these has needs. As you read over the list, one may leap out at you. Something interests you on that list. Or you can serve in one of the church ministries. The memorial guild is looking for people to help with hospitality. Whenever a member of our church family passes away, the church offers to host a reception for the family and friends in the Culbertson room. If you enjoy making and serving sandwiches and tea, this would be a good way to serve. We also have the outreach benefit, the rummage sale, or even teaching Sunday School. Serving as a Stephen Minister is also an excellent way to show compassion to others. Singing in the choir, being on the altar guild, wedding guild, on a committee, or being an usher help spread compassion to a hurting world.
Being a Sunday School teacher or helper is a good way to help children grow in their faith journeys. In today’s Scripture we see how Jesus valued children, welcoming a child into the midst of the disciples after the disciples argued about who was going to be more important in heaven. Jesus reached out to children and taught that they are valued and precious to our communities. Have you seen that statue in our children’s memorial garden? It is Jesus, several times larger than life, reaching out to a child, and the child’sface is turned toward Jesus happily. The garden is a memorial to children in our church who have passed away. This giant green bronze statue has welcomed children to climb upon it and run around it for years and years. This past week our cleaning service was power washing the windows that face this garden. One of the workers decided to power wash the statue. Jesus is now a shining, bright, bronze. It’s never looked like this before, it is a luminous gold. He completed Jesus but not the child yet, so the child is still the muted green color, but there are traces of bronze shining on the child’s arm. It is as if some of the light of Jesus rubbed off onto the child’s hands and arms. That garden has taken on a new look, and provokes us to consider how we are allowing the light of Christ to be manifest in our children. It should be a critical priority always in the life of the church. And if that statue ever turns dark green again, let’s remember to shine it so it will always provide this breath-taking image of a glowing, golden Jesus reaching out in love to a child.
Seeing how this statue was cleaned reminded me of something that happened in Frankfurt, Germany, after World War II ended. A church was trying to repair their sanctuary because it had been badly damaged by bombing. One of the things that needed repair was a statue of Jesus. They put the pieces back together again, but the hands of the statue had crushed and could not be found. Finally the congregation decided that leaving the statue of Jesus without hands would be the best way to feature the statue. They decided to put a sign under the statue Inscribed in the sign were the words, “Christ has no hands but our hands.” What a wonderful way to convey the theology of the church!
So far, adding compassion to your life is not a difficult thing to ask. Helping others and supporting children is something that is an easy request. But there is another dimension to compassion that is more challenging, loving those who are your enemies. Frederick Buechner, in one of the most memorable passages from a memorable book, The Magnificent Defeat, wrote: “The love for equals is a human thing … of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles. The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing … the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, and the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world. The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing … to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man. The world is bewildered by its saints. And then there is the love for the enemy … love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the World.”
Earlier I mentioned how one man in the hospital surprised another with compassion. How do we react when we are surprised by evil, evil against us? Gregg Levoy told a story about the monks at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. The monks had just completed a six-foot-wide creation on the ground, a mandala made from colored sand and gemstones. It was going to be the focal point of the exhibit, Wisdom and Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet. Watching this being built was great news in San Francisco because of its complex beauty and attention to detail. People enjoyed watching the monks silently putting the pieces into place. The monks leaned over a low platform and put an intricate pattern representing the cosmos into place. The day before the work of art was complete; a woman jumped past the barriers and started stomping all over the mandala, destroying it while she shouted about Buddhist death squads. Over a month’s work was destroyed in an instant by this woman’s moment of insanity. How did the monks react? That became the real art. “We don’t feel any anger,” said one. “We don’t know how to judge her motivations. We are praying for her, for love and compassion.” It may take a while to be able to react like those monks, but we can try, to add compassion to our lives, to those who are less fortunate than we are, and also to those who offend us, since even from the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”