A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, June 18, 2017
Text: Matthew 9:35 – 10:1 (The Message)
Several years ago now, Kathy Gillam was instrumental in organizing a conference on compassion at Stanford, hosted by the medical school and its Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. The conference presenters included two great modern champions of compassion – the Dalai Lama and Karen Armstrong. At the time, Karen Armstrong was touting her evolving work with the Charter of Compassion, a sort of semi-religious creed, based on the Golden Rule. In Adult Spiritual Formation, Dan Cudworth led us in a study of the Charter. Last year the Satterlees and I read Into the Magic Shop, an inspirational memoir by James Doty, the director of the Stanford Center, about the origins of his own understanding of the connections between the brain and the heart in shaping and guiding our lives.
Thus we see that compassion has become a surprisingly popular topic of thought and conversation in a world like ours so often characterized by competition, success, accumulation, greed, bullying, enmity, and hatred. Hopefully there is a recognition, a growing one, that unless we learn to look out for one another and for the planet, prospects for the future are grim and perhaps even slim. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is a lovely idea but come on. Get real. You have to take care of number one first, right? Well, maybe if you’re especially generous, you could make the focus of living you and yours. But that’s the extent of it.
As people of faith, gathered to worship, on warm Sunday morning in June, what do you think? What is compassion? What does it mean to you in your thinking, your feeling, your living? In his classic book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith, Marcus Borg offers the most literal of definitions, drawing on the Latin origins of the word: “…compassion means ‘to feel with…’” Passion in Latin literally means “to feel” and com means “with.” To walk a mile in another’s shoes; to get inside another’s head, heart, life in order to feel something of what they feel; to try to understand at a deep personal level what another’s world is like.
The opening of the Charter of Compassion affirms:
The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.
Wow! There’s a challenge for us. How would life in our world be different if more and more of us accepted this challenge? Can you imagine what it would be like to treat “everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect”?
I hesitated over including the photograph just before the Ancient Word in today’s bulletin. I wasn’t sure if it wasn’t exploitative and manipulative. After all we don’t know any of these people. Am I trying to make us feel sad, pity, guilt for the plight of these poor refugees? I hope not. It’s compassion I’m after. Today’s text says of Jesus, “When he looked out over the crowds, he had compassion for them.” In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase “his heart broke.” It was the crowds that touched his heart and stirred his compassion.
In his book, Borg has a whole chapter entitled “Jesus, Compassion, and Politics,” in which he writes, “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.” If that is true, that is a vital, potentially transforming word for us as people of faith and followers of Jesus. In the passage from the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus urges his hearers to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven,” he ends by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:45-48). Taken literally this seems like an impossible instruction. It has caused many a Christian to struggle mightily and unsuccessfully toward perfection.
Borg argues that this last line is more accurately translated, “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” That may not seem a whole lot easier, but I’d rather put what energy I have into compassion than turn to perfection. I believe the former is more likely to be achieved and will bring me much closer to my role as a child of God.
So, Borg writes, “Compassion…means feeling the feelings of somebody else in a visceral way, at a level somewhere below the level of the head; most commonly compassion is associated with feeling the suffering of somebody else and being moved to do something.” Hear that brief but essential phrase that Borg has added to our definition? It is not enough feel compassion. Real compassion requires that we be “moved to do something.” In fact, Borg goes on to argue for what he calls the “politics of compassion.” He writes, “For Jesus, compassion was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue: it was a social paradigm, the core value for life in community…He directly and repeatedly challenged the dominant sociopolitical paradigm of his social world and advocated instead what might be called a politics of compassion.” He concludes, “This conflict and this social vision continue to have striking implications for the life of the church today.” Ain’t that the truth!?
It’s not enough to just feel something. Maybe that was part of my reluctance to print the picture. It makes us feel something – guilt, compassion, the breaking of hearts, but are we moved to do something? Now don’t hear me saying that I expect a particular action from any one of us. I recognize that there are a variety of limits to our ability to act. I don’t want you to go immediately to thinking about all the things you can’t do and why. If you’re sparked at all by feelings of compassion, in any given situation – on the world stage or in your neighborhood or around your own kitchen table – what can you do and are you willing to do it?
In today’s text, the first thing that Jesus does, as he so often does, is pray. “What a huge harvest!” he said to his disciples. “How few workers! On your knees and pray for harvest hands!” Now when I was a child, the focus of this portion of the text always seemed to be on personal evangelism, on saving souls, and I’m not sure Peterson’s paraphrase helps us much here. See all those lost souls out there! They must be born again! But what of the harvest of compassion? Is it souls saved for heaven or is it the transforming of lives on earth? Is it prepping for the “sweet by and by” or is it bringing in God’s Beloved Community right here, right now?
The text says, “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.” The twelve apostles were singled out and sent out to do exactly the same work that Matthew records Jesus as doing in the two chapters preceding this one – kicking out evil spirits and tenderly caring for bruised and hurt lives; exorcising demons, healing the sick, comforting the outcast, befriending the lonely, feeding the hungry, advocating for the poor, arguing for systems that were grounded in God’s shalom, in God’s everlasting compassion and love for all that God created. Is there anything in this list of possibilities that you might take up, in some fashion, to activate your own feelings of compassion? It’s sure worth praying about, though you might want to be careful what you pray for. Your prayer may be no sooner prayed than answered, for indeed the need for your compassion is deep and wide and now!
The worship resources for today suggested a hymn to go along with this text, a hymn that has become one of my favorites. I didn’t choose it for today’s service because we sang it recently. The words are by a regrettably neglected Methodist theologian of the 20th century. Georgia Harkness was a great pioneer among women in ministry and an influential teacher and scholar. Her hymn, “Hope of the World,” was commissioned for a meeting of the World Council of Churches in 1948. It’s a “go to hymn” when we focus on hope and overcoming fear. A phrase from this hymn echoed in my ear and became the title of today’s sermon. I’m not sure the phrase ever stood out so clearly before, but, as I reflect now, it may be one the reasons I’ve come to love the hymn. Let’s give Georgia Harkness the last word today:
Hope of the world, thou Christ of great compassion:
speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent;
save us, thy people, from consuming passion,
who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.
Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven,
bringing to hungry souls the bread of life:
still let thy Spirit unto us be given
to heal earth’s wounds and end our bitter strife.