"COMPASSION" - Psalm 103:1-13; Mark 6:30-44

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, July 22, 2018

Texts: Psalm 103:1-13; Mark 6:30-44


            Whenever the circumstances of life get to spinning, whenever we feel overwhelmed and anxious – like when shame and/or discouragement take center-stage in our hearts, or a recent diagnosis paralyzes us, or the decisions we face seem far too complex - it is good to think afresh about two things.

            Whenever the unfolding events of the world feel so chaotic and complicated, whenever the uncertainties of these days feel overwhelming, it is good to think afresh about two questions.

            Here are the two questions: 1) How does your God view the world? – the basic theological question; and 2) How does your God ask you to view the world? – the basic ethical question.

These are, of course, related questions, because people’s attitudes toward the world invariably mirror their underlying conceptions of God – or they should. Put another way – our ethics flow from our theology – or they should. (See Feasting on the Word, D. J. Hall, Year B. Vol. 3, p. 260)

Instead of allowing ourselves to be overtaken with the overwhelming, we seek to root our lives deeply in God . . . and what God would have us do in the world. Instead of just spinning and searching, we seek to root our lives deeply in God and what God would have us do.

For us as Christians, we have answers to those two questions in our passages of Scripture today.

The first lesson reminds us, as we just heard, that we are to “Bless the Lord.” “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. . . . Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget the Lord’s benefits, (I love that line – “do not forget the Lord’s benefits”). See, as the psalmist reminds us, the Lord “forgives all your iniquity, . . .heals all your diseases, . . . redeems life from the pit, . . .  crowns you with steadfast mercy, . . . satisfies you with good as long as you live.”

How does your God view the world? Well, there is the answer. God is present and active in our hearts and in our complex world. “The Lord works vindication and justice; the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. . . .For as high as the heavens, so great is God’s steadfast love. . . . As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion.”

And how does God ask us to view the world – with faith, with blessing, . . .  with trusting God and serving God.

In our second lesson, which I will read shortly, we have an extraordinary summary in one key verse. This is what it says: “Jesus saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 34).

How does God view the world, which we so often forget when we are overwhelmed, feeling like sheep without a shepherd? “Jesus had COMPASSION on them.” That word –COMPASSION – speaks powerfully about God and God’s ways toward us.

COMPASSION alludes to kindness and sympathy; that is what Jesus had for the people. But there is something deeper, something even more profoundly powerful, in the meaning of the word. In Latin, 'compati' means "suffer with." Compassion means someone else's heartbreak becomes your heartbreak. Compassion means to “endure something with another person,” to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as if it was your own, and enter generously into his point of view. Another's suffering becomes your suffering. True compassion – when it is received and shared - changes the way we live.

How does God view the world? Listen to this second passage:

30The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.42And all ate and were filled; 43and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

If we look carefully at Jesus, and all the people in this passage, it is very instructive. The disciples had been so busy doing what Jesus taught them to do, doing the work he came to do: teaching, healing, casting out demons, spreading forgiveness and love. The disciples came to Jesus, it says, and they told him all that they had been doing. He said, “come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest a while.”

Everyone needs rest, especially those busy spreading COMPASSION. The disciples were coming and going; they had not even taken time to eat. They got into the boat to go to a deserted place, so that COMPASSION FATIGUE did not get the best of them.

But the people saw them going, recognized them in the boat, and as the boat floated to the other side, the people ran around from all the towns and met them. It looks like an exhausting scene. Tired disciples. Hungry disciples. Jesus with them in the boat trying to get them some relief. But this passage also shows desperate people, frenetic people. The crowds follow, the needs continue, the overwhelming does not slow down or stop.

Again, it is important to ask: How does your God view the world? How does your God ask you to view the world?

This is when it says, “as he went ashore, Jesus saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And he taught them many things, . . . and then we have the wonderful story of how he fed them – feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish.

This wonderful, life-giving, need-meeting, world-affirming Jesus that we see in the story is not unusual. In so many other places in the gospel stories, this is what Jesus does. He has COMPASSION. He comes to the people and puts himself in their shoes, seeks to meet their needs with kindness and care, food and healing. He keeps showing, spreading, sharing COMPASSION. In another story, Jesus had COMPASSION on two blind men who cried out for sight (Matt. 20). When he saw a dead person being carried out of the village, with his weeping mother, who was a widow, he had COMPASSION on them, and raised the son (Luke 7). There are numerous stories like this. This is how God views life, especially hurting life, confusing, discouraged life – with COMPASSION. Jesus is in unconditional solidarity with those who suffer. That is where Jesus meets us. This is what God is like.

And this is what is so seemingly lacking in our world – COMPASSION. Our culture has grown intensely competitive and individualistic. If we are not careful, we are lured into thinking that our country, and our own lives, have to be ruthlessly selfish. In a recent book, entitled, Twelve Steps to A Compassionate Life, acclaimed writer and professor Karen Armstrong, says, “In our perilously divided world, compassion is in our best interest. To acquire it, however, will demand an immense effort of mind and heart. Gandhi memorably said that we must ourselves become the change that we wish to see in the world. We cannot reasonably expect the leaders of our own or other people’s nations to adopt more humane policies if we ourselves continue to live egotistically, unkindly, and greedily, and give free rein to unexamined prejudice. We cannot demand that our enemies become more tolerant and less violent if we make no effort to transcend (the aggressions and selfishness) in our own lives. We have a natural capacity for compassion as well as cruelty. We can either emphasize those aspects of our traditions, religious and secular, that speak of hatred, exclusion, and suspicion, OR work with those that stress interdependence and equality of all human beings. The choice is ours.” (K. Armstrong, Twelve Steps…p. 22)

Armstrong’s book goes on with keen insights about how we learn COMPASSION, - and it is a lifelong process, and continuous journey. We learn COMPASSION by looking at the world, seeking to grow in empathy and mindfulness, speaking kindly to one another, showing concern for everyone, even loving our enemies. Hers is a very thoughtful book about a critical topic in critical times, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life.

Karen Armstrong has written many books on important topics, all well-researched, and some very long reads. This one is so accessible, so helpful and hopeful, so pertinent to our times. In recent years, she even put together a compelling, worldwide effort – from six faith traditions and so many languages - called “A Charter of Compassion.” This is what the Charter of Compassion affirms –

“We call upon men and women to restore compassion to the center of morality and religion; to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred, or disdain is illegitimate; to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings – even those regarded as enemies. We urgently need to make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force in our polarized world. . . .COMPASSION is essential to human relationships and to a fulfilled humanity. It is the path to enlightenment, and indispensible to the creation of a just economy and a peaceful global community.” (K. Armstrong, Twelve Steps …. p. 7-8)

How does God view the world? With sincere COMPASSION. How does God ask us to view the world? With devoted COMPASSION.

There is a popular story in which a student of the famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead, asked the professor to describe the earliest sign of civilization in a given culture. Expecting a treatise on clay pots or crude axes or grinding stones, Dr. Mead’s answer was simply “a healed femur,” the human thighbone. Dr. Mead went on to explain that a healed femur indicated devoted COMPASSION – someone cared deeply enough to do the injured person’s hurting and gathering until the leg healed. The evidence of COMPASSION, she said, is the first sign of civilization. (Felton and Procter-Murphy, Living the Questions, p. 208)

COMPASSION needs to be – not the first sign – but the current sign of our lives, our current civilization.

I recently came across a most compelling translation of Revelation 21 – that fantastic image of God’s plans and intentions at the end of the Bible. It goes like this: “This is the story of the beautiful city of God. This city sparkles with the loveliness of rare gems. The city is filled with light. There are no shrines or temples because everything here is understood to be sacred and filled with the holy. This is the story of the beloved community. In this community we find welcome. In this community we find kinship. In this community we find our voice. In this community we are all loved.” (See G. Boyle, Barking to the Choir, p. 191)

I also came across this: a few years ago, South Africa’s Archbishop, Desmond Tutu gave a lecture and quoted St. Augustine, who said: “God without us will not, as we without God cannot.” (see M. Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 179)

God’s plans, God’s intentions, God’s goals are so full of COMPASSION. Yet, without us, without our sincere devotion to COMPASSION – to seeing others, feeding and serving others, helping and healing others like Jesus – God will not do it. And we, without God, cannot do it. Without our response, our faithfulness, our loving kindness, our tender care, our inclusion and generosity, our efforts at COMPASSION, God will not transform us or rescue us, either as individuals or societies. We, without God, cannot bring about transformation and the reign of God.

We are in this together. God views the world with COMPASSION. God asks us to view the world with COMPASSION.

May we work together for the healing and hope of all things following Jesus Christ, the Compassionate One. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to follow you, with COMPASSION and care, that is to abide forever. Show us that way. AMEN

Alex Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on July 22, 2018. This is a rough manuscript.

Virginia Evans