WHEN ONLY COMPASSION WILL DO

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

September 10, 2017; Non-lectionary sermon

Isaiah 54:6-10; Romans 12:9-18

 

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

Romans 12:15

For much of the past week, we’ve been watching its excruciatingly slow progress across our TV screens: Hurricane Irma, sauntering across the warm waters of the Caribbean, like an executioner on his way to the gallows. We watched its high winds and storm surge pick off one tiny tropical island after another, then savage the northern coasts of Puerto Rico and Cuba.  This morning, Irma’s eye is over Key West: a very unwelcome visitor on the doorstep of Florida.

America’s never seen anything like this storm: at least, not in the lifetime of anyone now living.

Most of us here in New Jersey know at least one person who lives in Florida. We have former church members who live there. The Floridians have now made their difficult personal choice, whether to go or stay. For them it’s a matter of waiting — and hoping.

The bizarre thing is, Irma’s not the only natural disaster in recent days! First there was Harvey, dropping that record-breaking rain over Texas. Parts of Houston are still under water. Then there was Irma. Even as we speak, Hurricane Jose is still circling, mid-ocean, and Hurricane Katia is fixing to wallop Mexico.

As if that weren’t enough, there are wildfires burning out of control in the West: and a huge earthquake, also in Mexico.

It’s no wonder, in light of all of this, that the prophets of doom are working overtime. Starting with the solar eclipse back in August, and taking note of the storms and earthquake since then, lots of armchair theologians are starting to agree with science fiction writer John Scalzi, who says this looks “like the End Times are getting in a few dress rehearsals right about now.”

Which is, of course, absurd. The date of the solar eclipse has been known for centuries. Hurricanes rise up out of the warm, tropical waters of the Atlantic nearly every year. The one-two punch of Harvey and Irma may be a bit unusual — and their power awe-inspiring — but hurricanes hitting Florida aren’t exactly a new thing. An 8.0 earthquake happens, on the average, once a year, somewhere in the world; it just happened to be Mexico’s bad luck this time around. As for the wildfires, well, more acres of woodland are ablaze this day than anyone can remember, but fires in the West aren’t exactly a new thing, either.

*****

So, what’s God up to? Is there a hidden message in all these disasters? Or is it just an unfortunate coincidence that there are so many this summer?

If you know my preaching and teaching at all, then you know I don’t waste my time trying to get the end of the world onto my calendar. Jesus said very clearly that no one would know the day or the hour of his return. I figure the most effective “prepping” any of us can do is simply to strive to be the best disciples we can, no matter what the weather report is saying.

With regard to the devastation about to take place in Florida, it’s clear to me what God wants us to do, in the short term. Our marching orders are right there, in Romans 12, verse 15: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

We’re still not five years out from Hurricane Sandy, so here at the Jersey Shore we know what our neighbors to the south are in for. Once the winds have died down, the rains have ceased, and our TV and computer screens have stopped overflowing with images of ruined buildings, perhaps a tear will come to our eye a little more easily. We’ll be able to offer our neighbors that gesture of solidarity, at least, as a prelude to our mission outreach.

Weeping with those who weep is an unmistakable sign of one of the greatest of Christian virtues. That virtue is compassion: and it will be mightily encouraging to our brothers and sisters down south to simply know that we care.

*****

The Greek word for compassion, that occurs so often in the New Testament, is a real mouthful. It’s splagthizomai, a word that literally means “feel it in the gut.” Some truths in life we come to know in our heads, by means of reason. Others we feel in our heart, by means of emotion. But there are still others we realize only from a dull pain in the gut — a physical manifestation of deep spiritual connection with another person, of sharing in that person’s suffering.

Matthew 9:36 says of Jesus, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”

In Matthew 15 and in Mark 8, Jesus has “compassion for the crowd,” who have nothing to eat. Shortly after, he performs the miracle of the loaves and the fishes.

In Luke 10, he tells the parable of The Good Samaritan. When the Samaritan sees the injured man lying beside the road, verse 13 says, “he was moved with pity.” The Greek word is the same: splagthizomai, the persistent pain in the gut. Our English translation could just as well have said, “He was moved with compassion.”

A few chapters later, in the parable of The Prodigal Son, we learn that as the wayward son is returning home at last, and his father sees him coming from far off, looking like some bedraggled stray dog, he is “filled with compassion” and runs to embrace him.

In each of these cases, compassion is more than a feeling. Immediately, it manifests itself in action. You can see this in the origins of our English word. Compassion comes from the Latin: compassio, meaning “to suffer with.” The word “passion” literally means suffering (as in the passion of Jesus).

Compassion can never be merely a spectator sport. If you turn on your TV in the coming days and watch some video footage of people wading through the water inside their flooded home, and if you remark “Isn’t that terrible,” you may be expressing sympathy, or even empathy — but you won’t yet be feeling compassion. You won’t feel compassion until you experience, deep within you, an echo of the same pain they feel, the same grief at their terrible loss. That’s what Paul means when he encourages the Romans to “weep with those who weep.” He doesn’t use the word compassion right there, but compassion is surely what he’s talking about.

Compassion is a deeply human experience. It may, in fact, be essential to what makes us human. Yet, we also know from scripture that it’s a divine attribute as well.

In Exodus 34:6, the Lord passes by Moses, saying, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation…” The Hebrew word hesed, or steadfast love, could just as well be translated as compassion.

In Isaiah 54:7 — this morning’s Old Testament lesson — the Lord speaks a word of hope to the exiles in Babylon, saying, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you.”

Psalm 103:13 says, “As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”

And of course we’ve already looked at several passages that demonstrate the rich well of compassion within our Lord, Jesus Christ.

In each of these cases, compassion is more than just a thought or a feeling. It’s a deep spiritual connection with another person that causes us to feel what they feel. It issues in loving action.

It’s not something, frankly, we have a whole lot of control over. We can’t will ourselves to feel it. We can’t think our way into it. We just do it. If we’re sufficiently attuned to God and God’s purposes, it rises up from the gut.

Scientists have been learning a lot, in recent years, about how our gut works. They’ve long known that the process of human digestion functions quite independently of the brain. We don’t need to think about digesting our food. Our body just does it, automatically.

What scientists are now learning is that this is because of something known as the enteric nervous system. There’s a whole separate nervous system in our gut that operates on its own. The web of nerves there is not as complex as those in the brain, but it can practice a specialized sort of thinking all on its own. Some scientists even refer to the enteric nervous system as “the second brain.”

You know how sometimes people aren’t able to tell you exactly how they know something? They’ll often describe that way of knowing as a “gut feeling.” It can be quite compelling to have that experience.

That’s what compassion is all about. It comes from a place deep within us, and arises in ways we scarcely understand.

Confronted with such an embodied response, you and I have a choice. We can either acknowledge the feeling — owning it for what it is — or we can ignore it. There are two easy ways of ignoring it. We can either run away from it — turning the TV channel, for example, so we don’t have to deal with upsetting news — or we can cover it over with rationalization.

That rationalization often takes the form of judgment: judging the person who’s suffering as somehow less than worthy. That’s what’s going on, for example, when we pass a panhandler on a city street and turn away, silently blaming the person for their condition. We may know little or nothing about their circumstances, but the judgment comes all too easily.

That sort of negative judgement is an intrusion of rationality, seeking to block the gut feeling. It’s one of the most effective ways of derailing compassion: pushing the compassionate feelings far away from ourselves, avoiding any risk that they may actually motivate us to do something.

*****

And so, as followers of the Risen One, we weep with those who weep. It’s the way of Christ, the way of compassion.

A couple years ago, Pope Francis was visiting Manila, in the Philippines. He was conducting a question-and-answer session before a huge crowd of people when a 12-year-old girl named Glyzelle Palomar took the microphone.

Glyzelle was only 12, but she’d seen more suffering in her short life than most grown-ups. She’d spent many years on the streets, scrounging just to stay alive. She’d searched for food in garbage dumpsters and slept outdoors with nothing but scraps of cardboard for a bed.

Glyzelle had a question for the pope. This is what she said:

“There are many children neglected by their own parents. There are also many who became victims and many terrible things happened to them, like drugs or prostitution. Why is God allowing such things to happen, even if it is not the fault of the children? And why are there only very few people helping us?”

That was as far as the girl got. She’d wanted to say more, but she broke down in sobs.

The pope’s handlers were agitated at this. It was an awkward, unscripted moment no one had planned for.

But Pope Francis was wise enough to give an unscripted response.

He reached out and silently enfolded the sobbing child in his arms, standing there for a long time. Then he admonished the crowd to pay close attention — because, he said, “She has just asked the one question with no answer.”

Then he turned to Glyzelle and said, “Only when we are able to weep about the things you have lived will we understand anything and be able to answer you.”

Francis turned again to the crowd. He said

 “The world needs to weep. The marginalized weep, the scorned weep, but we who are more or less without needs, we don’t know how. We must learn. There are realities in this life you can see only with eyes cleansed and clarified by tears… If you don’t learn to weep, you’re not a good Christian!”

Whenever we’re asked that question with no answer, the pope concluded, “Our answer must first be silence, and then a word born of tears.”

Francis’ off-the-cuff response to that awkward, unscripted situation was absolutely brilliant.

I can’t think of a better embodiment of Paul’s advice to the Romans, that we must learn to “weep with those who weep.” There are some experiences in life that shake us to the very core, that challenge us to do things we never imagined we could. It’s only then that the tears come: and it’s a comfort, when they do, to know there are others who share our grief.

Many people in the State of Florida, this very morning, are having just that sort of experience. Neither they nor we can predict exactly what’s going to happen — where, exactly, the storm will go, what damage it will bring —  but we know it’s going to be bad. Some will lose their homes, or their cars, or their livelihood. Others may lose loved ones.

There will be tears.

But tears shared are tears more easily shed.

Whatever our response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma may eventually be, I do know where that response needs to begin. It begins with compassion, that finds expression in tears.

Let us pray:

Lord, as we follow the news

          of suffering and heartbreak among neighbors to the South,

          break open our hearts.

          Make us vulnerable.

          Help us to share the burdens of others

          even as your son Jesus

          shares the burdens we ourselves fear to bear.

          In his holy name we pray. Amen.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.