With or Against?

A Message about Compassion.

A Reading from the Ninth Chapter of Matthew’s Account of the Good News.

Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the Reign of God on earth. He cured every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

The great Henri Nouwen once said, “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, I share this timely quote with you today because it’s a wonderful explanation of the nature of compassion. But compassion goes even deeper than Nouwen’s quote. Compassion can be expressed in more ways than one might think.

Maybe think of it like this. You’re out walking one day and you see a stranger stuck at the bottom of a pit. What do you do? Well, you could just mind your own business and walk right on by, but that wouldn’t square with your calling as a person of faith or as a human being for that matter. The second option might be to go for help or a ladder or a rope. All would be acceptable acts. But there’s a third option here. You could jump down in the pit with the stranger. Now, the third option is an illustration of compassion. Compassion calls us to “suffering with” someone in distress. The word compassion literally means, “to suffer with.”

But here’s the thing. Here’s the part of compassion that you might not expect. We’re not called to stay in the pit. Compassion invites us to climb out of the pit …together. In other words, compassion calls us to be with another person in need and to work with them to find our way out of the pit, toward wholeness, toward God. And it goes without saying then, that being with someone who’s struggling, or grieving, or suffering injustice, means not working against them. I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s the truth.

Now, Jesus, in our text for today, looked out across the crowds that were following him and the narrative says, “He had compassion for them.” In other words, Jesus was with them in their struggles as they suffered injustice at the hands of the Roman Empire. And he was with them as they tried to square that injustice with their spiritual lives. Jesus said they were like sheep with a shepherd.

The interesting thing I see here is that Jesus, no matter how many sick people came to him, no matter how many times his disciples questioned or doubted, no matter how many times he was accused of heresy or breaking the law; no matter how many suffering people Jesus encountered, he persisted in proclaiming the good news of the present-reign of God. The text says he “cured every disease and every sickness.”

And as we look beyond this passage to the rest of the gospel, we encounter a Jesus who didn’t care about one’s past mistakes, one’s religion, one’s status in society; he didn’t care about one’s national origin or race, he didn’t shame anyone for their sexual orientation or gender identity or lifestyle; Jesus didn’t judge people based upon on any of these criteria, he simply loved them; he simply had “compassion for them.”

So, how might this passage speak to us in our present situation? I mean, as the privileged majority, do we stand with the disadvantaged minority who are suffering racial injustice or do we work against them. Jesus’ answer seems pretty clear. We’re to have compassion for those who are struggling. We are to suffer with those on the margins of society, those who have suffered violence because of the color of their skin.

Now, despite all of the negative things going on right now, I have seen many wonderful examples of compassion. In one instance a group of police officers put down their shields and joined in a protest march. In another instance, I saw two uniformed police officers playing basketball to two young men. Time and again, I’ve seen examples good policing.

But at the same time, the deep scars of racism still pollute the minds of some, even of some police officers. My grandma would have called them, “a few bad apples.” And that, from my perspective, is what these peaceful protests are all about. Yes, there are other “bad apples” who are taking advantage of the unrest to loot and steal, and to complicate things even more, there are white supremist groups whose goal is to stir up trouble and cause even more civil unrest. But by and large, what I have witnessed are white and black and brown people, and police officers, and community leaders, and elected officials, coming together to create change, real change in law enforcement practices. And please, I implore you to tune-out the political pundits from both sides of the isle, no reasonable person wants to get rid of the police. “Defund” is a misnomer. The goal is to encourage reform through the reallocation of resources; the goal is to bring about a greater unity and a deeper understanding between peace officers and people of color, so that policing will become more just, more humane, …more compassionate.

One final thought before I move into our community time of prayer. Jesus ends this passage by saying, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into the harvest.” My friends, the harvest of injustice and racism and hatred in this nation is indeed plentiful. It’s overwhelming sometimes and it’s been exposed as never before in my lifetime over the course of the past three years. But we are called to stand against oppression, to use or voice and our vote, our prayers and our protests, to either physically or in spirit, go out as laborers into the harvest, effecting change through sharing the good news of the present reign of God in this world, and by having compassion on all whom we encounter. The Lord of the harvest has called us, the few, to stand up against the injustice of many.

But here’s the good news, the few are ever-expanding, growing in numbers and spirit every day. In the end, we will live-into the justice and equality that God intends for all humanity. I’m going to leave you today with the immortal words of Dr. King, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bend toward justice.” May we as compassionate harvesters, become a part of that arc-bending; may we as people of faith, begin to move past the evils of racism and into the fields unity, co-existence, and grace. May it be so for you and for me.

Amen & Amen.

[i] Quote found at (www.ucc.org/seeds/samuel) June 14, 2020

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