The wonderful Catholic theologian, Henri Nouwen, once wrote, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.”[i]
Now, these are moving words, but do they set the bar too high? Is it possible for us, our faith community, to become a part of this “living compassion” that Nouwen espouses here; can we convey a “living hope” to others?
In today’s Gospel passage from Matthew, we learn that indeed the church is to be about the business of healing, teaching, and proclaiming the good news. And, this is key, that the church is to be in motion. We are not to have a static, stay-at-home, preserve-our-level-of-comfort-and-let-them-come-to-us faith, but instead, a bold “going-out” into the world kind of faith. A faith that knows a God who loves passionately and who created wonderfully. And we are to share this Divine understanding with those who have not yet heard God speaking to them, or felt the touch of God’s love upon their lives. But, how do we know this? How do we know what the church is to be about? To find the answer, we need only to look at Jesus and what he was about. Matthew reminds us that Jesus didn’t sit still but traveled about, curing and teaching and healing, and when he saw the hunger and need and confusion of “the crowds,” he felt profound compassion for them. Jesus both moved and was moved.
We too are to see the need of the world, its hungers and confusion, and like Jesus, we’re called to respond with compassion and lovingkindness. And it also seems that we are called not to sit still but, like Jesus, to be on the move, open to those we meet along the way.[ii]
I read a great devotion this past week that exemplified this understanding of compassion. UCC pastor Vince Amlin told the story of the first time he met Rev. Al Carmines. “He was ensconced on a couch in the church fellowship hall,” Vince remembered, “smoking two cigarettes at once. As he greeted my friend and I, one of the cigarettes dropped onto his sweater, and he let it burn there on his belly while he puffed on the other. Al was legendary to me. I had read about his place in the 1960’s theater scene in Greenwich Village, and I had sung many of his beautiful hymns while worshipping at Judson Memorial Church in NYC. And when I told him so, on that first meeting, he requested that I sing a solo in the service that was starting in five minutes! Eight of us shared worship that day, which featured only me singing the Old Rugged Cross and an extended pastoral prayer by Al, offering a blessing for a transgendered man he had met at a bar the night before.” And then Vince added these words, “It was one of the most unusual and compassionate services I’ve ever been a part of.”[iii]
My friends, that’s the thing about compassion, it challenges the status quo. Compassion asks us to step out from behind our preconceived notions about groups of people and to see the value of each, individual person.
A perfect example of this is the narrative about Jesus healing the man with the withered hand. You remember the story. Jesus encountered a disabled man in the Synagogue on the Sabbath and he had compassion for this man. So, Jesus healed his hand. Which, as you know, was illegal. It was against the law to do any work on the Sabbath including the work of compassion. So, Jesus’ act of compassion was in fact a crime. Now, Jesus could have said, “I don’t want to get into trouble, so come back tomorrow and I’ll take care of ya then.” Or even worse, he could have mocked the man for being disabled, he could have made fun of him or blamed him for his condition. But he didn’t. Instead Jesus had compassion on this man and understood that he, like every person, had value, and Jesus healed his infirmity.[iv]
Now, you and I probably cannot touch a man’s hand and physically heal him. But we can seek to discover the value of each person. In The Message, a contemporary translation of the Bible, Paul, speaking to the Church in Rome, implores them to “Love from the center of who you are; and discover the beauty in everyone.” How? Well, Paul says, “Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.” He goes on to tell us to, “…laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy and share tears when they’re down.”[v]
And you know what? We can to this! We can be agents of a different kind of healing. A healing that goes beyond the physical to a deeper emotional and spiritual plain; to a place that values each person’s unique abilities. We can touch those society had deemed untouchable; we can love those others have written off as unlovable; and we can have compassion for those who are “out there” wherever “out there” may be. And we can to this because of our faith. And I’m not talking about needing four years of theology classes, I’m speaking of a simple understanding of Christ’s call to be compassionate actors on behalf of God.
Anne Lamott, in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, affirms this when she says, “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.”[vi]
That’s the essence of compassion. We can be compassionate, even under the most difficult of circumstances, because we are a part of the One who came up with redwood trees. We can be agents of compassion because in every situation, God goes before us. That’s maybe the single most valuable lesson I learned about pastoral care; God goes before us!
Yes, compassion invites us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share with others in their brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. And it requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless.”[vii] But compassion doesn’t leave us there alone. God, through the Spirit, walks right beside us, sometimes leading, sometimes pushing, but always, always, encouraging and loving.
One final thought. Jesus reminds us in our text today that the workers, the ones who are out there sharing the healing and compassion of God with the masses, are few. Maybe our take-away for today, our challenge if you will, is to stand up and be added to the numbers of those “living out” the compassion of Christ in our lives; and “living into” the hope that compassion brings.
May we all continue to love from the center of our being, understand the value and gifts that every single person brings to the table, and through that understanding, may we discover the beauty in everyone.
In the name of the One who IS Love. Amen.
[i] Henry J. Nouwen. Compassion: A Reflection on Christian Life (Doubleday Publishing) 1983
[iii] Rev. Vince Amlin. Many Gifts, One Spirit (Still Speaking Writers Guild) 2017
[iv] Luke 6:1-11 Common English Bible (CEB)
[v] Romans 12 The Message (MSG)
[vi] Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, (Riverhead books) 2004
[vii] Ibid. Nouwen