Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 18, 2017

2017.06.18 “Whatever Happened to Compassion?” – Matthew 10: 35 – 10:8

Central United Methodist Church
Whatever Happened to Compassion?
Pastor David L. Haley
Matthew 10: 35 – 10:8
June 18th, 2017

Compassion

Then Jesus made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd. “What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples. “How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!”

The prayer was no sooner prayed than it was answered. Jesus called twelve of his followers and sent them into the ripe fields. He gave them power to kick out the evil spirits and to tenderly care for the bruised and hurt lives. This is the list of the twelve he sent:

Simon (they called him Peter, or “Rock”), Andrew, his brother, James, Zebedee’s son, John, his brother, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, the tax man, James, son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon, the Canaanite, Judas Iscariot (who later turned on him).

Jesus sent his twelve harvest hands out with this charge:

“Don’t begin by traveling to some far-off place to convert unbelievers. And don’t try to be dramatic by tackling some public enemy. Go to the lost, confused people right here in the neighborhood. Tell them that the kingdom is here. Bring health to the sick. Raise the dead. Touch the untouchables. Kick out the demons. You have been treated generously, so live generously.”  – Matthew 9: 35 – 10: 8, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson

Today we begin a new season in the Christian year, that season known as “ordinary time.” We have completed the Lent/Easter cycle, when we recount Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, and his subsequent betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Two weeks ago, on Pentecost we celebrated the gift of God’s Spirit, and last Sunday, Trinity Sunday, we celebrated God in Community, Holy in One, Father, Son and Spirit.

Ordinary time doesn’t mean “a time when nothing is happening,” it actually refers to the numbers (ordinals) of each Sunday, such as “the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost.” This season -the longest season in the Christian year – continues all the way up to the beginning of Advent in November.

However, the other sense of “ordinary time” is also a good one for this time of year. Summer begins Tuesday, school is out, as are the Adult Bible Class, Sunday School, Choir, and after-church Fellowship. It’s not so much a time when nothing is happening, as a time when different kinds of things are happening, in our lives and families. Children are in day camps, youth are in summer school or summer jobs, families prepare to go on vacation. If we do it right), ordinary time can be a time of renewal, in church, in our families, and in our lives.

One aspect of renewal is spiritual renewal, which is what we seek on these summer Sundays. So we come to church on these summer Sundays to sit before God and reflect upon what’s happening in the world and in our lives, seeking to grow intellectually and morally and spiritually, as we reflect upon the revelation of God revealed in Jesus the Christ. To help us do this, the Gospel readings return to an earlier time in Jesus’ ministry, and what he said and did during that time. So, may what we hear over these summer Sundays from the words and works of Jesus, not only inform but transform us.

May I lament that while this is the theory – what we hope is happening – too often it is not. The truth is, we all have a darker nature, filled with selfishness, anger, lust, greed, and fear. These – rather than our better nature – shape our understandings of culture, community, politics, and even religion, before we even get here. Thus, we often go to church and to the scriptures looking for confirmation of what we already believe, rather than transforming – even contradicting – what we believe. Who wants to hear what someone once said to the 17th century Lord Protector of England, Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you by the bowels of Christ, consider that you might be wrong.”

Studies show the less people go to church, which is increasingly the case among “blue collar” people, the less likely their attitudes are to be “Christian.” Even among those who go to church, if all they ever hear is how Jesus died for us, as in many evangelical churches and megachurches, then their attitudes also are more likely to be cultural Christianity – what they think Jesus said rather than what Jesus really said – which you only get by reading and reflecting upon the parts of the Gospels we will be reading this summer. EVEN THEN, as we all know from personal experience, even when we hear these words of Jesus, it can be so hard to accept them, especially when it contradicts what we have been taught, what we believe, how we live.

Here’s what got me thinking about this. What are we to make of the gunman of the week, James Hodgkinson, of Bellville, IL, killed on Wednesday morning in a shootout with police in Alexandria, Va., after he shot at and wounded Republican lawmakers preparing for a charity baseball game. Hodgkinson was not a right-winger, but a political progressive, an activist who had worked for the campaign of Bernie Sanders. I have not seen whether Mr. Hodgkinson had any religious affiliation.

What happens when a person – whether conservative or progressive – moves beyond reason to violence: literally buying a rifle and shooting people? Can anybody explain this? Was he seeking “suicide by police;” because you cannot do something like this expecting to survive it. Did he suffer some psychosis? Did he fall into the absolutism fallacy that assassins and terrorists and shooters fall into: “Those are evil people. Someone should do something about it. I will be that person.”

I understand the country is polarized, emotions are running high, politics is controversial, and many of us are outraged by the headlines every day. People have been de-friended and relationships have been broken – even among families and churches families – by the passions evoked during the last election, continuing through the present – both on the right and on the left. So in the midst of this – if we want to be Christian – what are we to think and to do?

Which brings us to today’s Gospel (finally, you say!):

“Then Jesus made a circuit of all the towns and villages. He taught in their meeting places, reported kingdom news, and healed their diseased bodies, healed their bruised and hurt lives. When he looked out over the crowds, his heart broke. So confused and aimless they were, like sheep with no shepherd.”

When Jesus looked out over the crowds, variously translated, “he was moved with compassion,” “his heart broke.” Because, “so confused and aimless they were, like sheep without a shepherd,” or as the NRSV puts it, “harassed and helpless.” Sounds contemporary, doesn’t it?

The idiom used in Greek literally says, “he was moved inside himself”; it was something Jesus felt viscerally. That’s what the word “compassion” means, “to suffer with,” to have empathy with others, even strangers. Jesus didn’t go about Galilee doing what he did because he was paid for it or because it was fun, he did it because he was moved with compassion. He felt what people felt, and did everything in his power – which in his case, was extraordinary – to share and alleviate suffering. As Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary put it in her commentary this week: the two works of Jesus were healing and liberation, to heal their illnesses, and to liberate them from all that enslaved them.

When Jesus looked out on the crowds, or into people’s eyes, in his great compassion, I do not think he saw the outer characteristics that so often distract us: whether people were rich or poor, black or brown (there were no white people), well-dressed or poorly dressed, clean or dirty, moral or immoral, religious or irreligious. Jesus looked beyond all that to look inside people:  to see in what ways they were needy, confused and aimless, battered and bruised. And – seeing that – he looked upon them not with apathy or revulsion, but with compassion.

We believe it is the same way he looks upon us. How many in our congregation and community, if given the safe space to admit it, would say they feel “harassed and helpless”? Young parents at their wit’s end, feeling ill-equipped for the over-whelming role of parenting. People in mid-life transition (or crisis) relating to a lost job? Those coping with the death of a spouse, sibling, or friend? Those whose relationships with their parents or children are not what they’d hoped for? Those who feel they are seen, and dismissed, because of their age, gender, or ethnicity? Black people who feel there is no justice in the world; at least not for them? Young people recently graduated from high school or college who see no clear future? Retirees who wonder if they are valued?

As he feels compassion for the crowds and for us, can we feel it for others? Can we look at the crowds, the stranger, the foreigner, the person “not like” us, listen to their words, look into their eyes and their hearts, and see them to be people in need of compassion?

Sometimes, those who irritate and scare us the most, those most in our face, are the neediest of people. Those who are angry or arrogant, righteous or rude, clowns and cranks; if we could only hear their story, nine times out of ten, somewhere in the past they have been scarred and hurt, and their behavior is a cover up, an acting out. Might it be possible – in emulation of our Master Jesus – to look upon them with compassion, to have empathy for them. I can’t help but wonder if John Hodgkinson wasn’t such a person?

And – in any case, with every person – the practical outworking of compassion will be different. Whether a person needs food, support, a listening ear, counseling, or – as in Mr. Hodgkinson’s case – intervention, to keep him from hurting himself or others.

I can’t say I am always there, but I am working on it, as I hope you are too. We desire to bridge the divides, by looking at and acting towards people with compassion: those who are victims, and those who are victimizers; those who are our political allies and those who are our political opponents; those who (at least theoretically) share our religion and those who follow other religions or no religion whatsoever. Those whom we love and who love us, and those who have a peculiar ability to annoy and aggravate us. Those who are good and those who are evil, and those like us, a mixture of both. Have you ever heard the saying, “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

The day after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, on April 5, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy spoke to the Cleveland City Club. Speaking of the culture of violence in our country, which in two months time would take his life, Senator Kennedy shared words as appropriate for today as they were then:

“Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember – even if only for a time – that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short movement of life, that they seek – as we do – nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.
Surely this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something.  Surely we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our hearts brothers and countrymen once again.” (Remarks of Senator Robert F. Kennedy to the Cleveland City Club, Cleveland, Ohio, April 5, 1968, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.)

Jesus, have compassion upon us, as we have learn to have compassion for others, as you have shown us and taught us by your own example. Amen.

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