The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He 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. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As 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.
Mark 1: 40-45
A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.
Last Sunday, on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper interviewed Sandy and Loni Phillips, a couple who lost their daughter seven years ago in the mass shooting at the theatre in Aurora, Colorado. Not long after their loss, they quit their jobs, sold most of their belongings, rented their house, bought an RV and set out to other mass shootings, hoping to meet survivors and offer help. Since then they’ve visited Newtown, Isla Vista, San Bernadino, Orlando, Las Vegas, Southerland Springs, Parkland, Santa Fe, Pittsburgh, and Thousand Oaks. And I would imagine even more cities since this interview was filmed. And, they started a non-profit to expand their work.
They said, “If you haven’t lost someone close to you, you can’t comprehend it. In grief, strangers can quickly become family.” Through their travels, consoling and sharing advice from their own experience, their family now extends across the country.
Cooper pointed out that “You’re not trained therapists. You’ve upended your lives reaching out in a very individual way to people.” Sandy responded, “Yeah, it’s compassion - bottom line, it’s about compassion.” Her husband chimed in, “The compassion we get from those people too. It’s not like it’s a one-way deal.”
In the scripture today “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them.” Jesus was the walking personification of compassion. His compassion acted like a magnet. Nobody could resist it. They flocked to him. It was the same for the Phillips as they travelled across the country. Something in our psyche seems to draw us to compassionate people.
That ‘urge to help’ is an important part of ‘compassion’ as it is used in our scriptures. In Hebrew (as well as Aramaic) Rachamen, the word usually translated as “compassion” is the plural of a noun that in its singular form means “womb,” and is used to describe the womb of God. Compassion is something that emanates out from deep within us. The Greek word (which I can’t pronounce) connects to one’s guts. The Latin ‘cum’ means with, and passion means “to suffer” or “to feel” - like feeling the suffering of somebody in a visceral way, and acting to relieve it.
Years ago when my mother was very ill in the hospital and in a lot of pain, I used to have dry heaves in the shower in the mornings before I went to visit her. Looking back, this was my visceral connection to her suffering, which I couldn’t relieve.
Frederick Buechner describes compassion as “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
Can we have too much compassion? Jesus didn’t seem to think so, but then he was Jesus - and you might make an argument that it ultimately led to his crucifixion.
I remember returning from a long stay with my mom. I had lost considerable weight and looked and felt wasted. My pastor at the time counseled me that I had to find a way to feel compassion for my mother without taking on her suffering as my own. If I didn’t, it would render me incapacitated to help her and my dad at that critical time. That’s a difficult line to walk, especially when it’s with a loved one.
Compassion for Jesus was the core value for life in community. The word represents the summation of his teachings about both God, and the central moral quality of a life centered in God. In Luke 6:36 Jesus instructs us “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.”
What many don’t understand today is that he was breaking the social vision of his time, a vision that instructed: “Be holy as God is holy.” To be holy required living by a purity system: laws that divided people into the clean and unclean based in part on birth, wealth, gender, and wholeness.
People who were not “whole” - the maimed, the chronically ill, lepers, eunuchs, were ostracized as impure - as were the abject poor, who didn’t have the means to observe the purity laws, and who are thought to have somehow offended God.
Jesus introduced a new social vision: “Be compassionate as God is compassionate.” A story is told about St. Francis. He “was known to have a weak stomach. Whether psychological or physiological, he had a nauseating aversion to people with leprosy. When he smelled the decay of their flesh, he would gag.
One day, Francis was riding along on his horse when he saw a leprous man. He stopped the horse and turned it in the opposite direction. At that very moment, he sensed the conviction of God’s Spirit. He knew that following Christ and avoiding compassion for the man couldn’t coexist. He sensed the sadness the leper must have felt when he saw Francis turn his horse around. Have you ever avoided someone asking for a hand-out on the street, only to feel sad, and a little bit guilty later on? I certainly have.
So Francis turned back, rode to the man, dismounted and took a knee before him. He drew up the sick man’s leprous hand and kissed it as if it were the king’s royal hand. Franciscan biographers claim this episode of compassion was the moment of Francis’ true conversion. He sensed the pain of a leper and entered into it through a personally sacrificial act.”
Discipleship involves becoming compassionate. Being compassionate as God is compassionate is the defining mark of the follower of Jesus. A seminarian friend, Thom Longino, works as the Associate Night minister in San Francisco, as a street walker for Jesus, as he puts it, ministering to the homeless. He uses the old adage “If you want to know someone, walk a mile in their shoes.” That is how we are challenged to unleash the compassion in our hearts.
For a while I received copies of The Night Ministries monthly newsletter. I saved a story by Vicki Gray that says it all. She is a transgender Episcopal deacon. She began with the verse from scripture we heard this morning:
Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him,
and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean.”
“The other day someone asked me what we do with the San Francisco Night Ministry. ‘What can you do for the homeless on the streets of San Francisco at two o’clock in the morning?’ she asked. ‘Have you converted anyone?’
‘I don’t know,’ I replied, ‘we’re simply a ministry of presence, one human being interacting with another on some cold pavement.’ What can we do? What do we do? We look people we encounter in the eye to say, simply, without words, ‘I see you. I respect you, and I love you as another human being.’ We listen. We talk with each other as equals. And, yes, we touch each other.
You can’t imagine how important, how healing it is to physically feel the touch of another human being unless you’ve lived alone … like those I’ve met on the street.
I especially remember one such encounter one especially cold night a year ago. It was around midnight at the corner of Post and Van Ness … a voice crying from a doorway ‘Help me, help me, it’s too cold tonight. I’ve got to find a shelter bed.’ I stopped and looked and saw a man probably younger than me, but looking so much older, his clothes torn, his hair disheveled, a blanket over his shoulders, his hands, outstretched from beneath the blanket, covered with grime and calluses. Our eyes met and he said, now in quiet desperation, ‘Please help me. I’m a Vietnam veteran.’ Without thinking, I asked ‘Where?’ ‘Danang ’67,’ he replied, Again without thinking, I replied ‘Mekong Delta ’65.’ Without another word, we hugged … for a long time.
It was an encounter I hadn’t thought much about this past year … not until a few weeks ago when I started thinking about Jesus’ encounter with that leper in Galilee. I started thinking about the loneliness of the leper and about Jesus’ reaction. And then, I remembered the face of Jesus in a fellow vet.”
The rewards of compassion are not things to wait for. They are hidden in the compassion itself,” writes Henri Nouwen. The Phillips discovered that in their outreach to others suffering from a loss they knew all too well. Vicky Gray discovered it in reaching out to a fellow vet. It was a mutual exchange of love, as Paul would say.
Thinking about this sermon, I started thinking about the last year of my father’s life and my visits with him - the pain I felt watching the quality of his life diminishing with each visit. I will never forget him crying out to me from his hospital bed in those last days: “Susan, help me.” I did everything I could, but it never felt like enough. Thinking about it, the deep sadness and visceral feelings of helplessness in my gut returned uninvited.
I had to remind myself of the fourth agreement in Don Miguel Ruiz’s book, The Four Agreements: “Always do your best.” That’s all one can ask of oneself. That’s all God asks of us. Some days that’s sitting in silence with a grieving friend, or handing the last dollar in your wallet to the person holding a sign on the exit of the highway. Some days it’s making lasagna for the homeless at the Friday Cafe in Cambridge or wiping your child’s tears as he tells about the kids bullying him at school. We don’t have to look far to see the need.
The word compassion is being thrown around a lot these days, unfortunately, often referring to a lack thereof. We desperately need more compassion, not only in our elected officials, but in each one of us. It’s the only way this country, and this world can heal.
The writers of “Living the Questions” teach us that: “Compassion is the way of transformation — for both the one suffering and for the oppressor. To be compassionate is to recognize our utter interdependence in God’s world and to see another person, be they stranger or outcast, as sister or brother.” That is our challenge.
Jesus had one other lesson for us in this scripture today, and it’s an important one: take time for yourself away from these crowds in need compassion. Treat yourself with tender loving care. Lao-Tzu, in the Tao the Ching, writes: I have three things to teach: simplicity, patience and compassion. These are your greatest treasures. Compassionate toward yourself, you reconcile all beings in the world.” Jesus understood that as he ushered his disciples across the lake that day.
Let us transform the world, little by little, creating the kingdom of God, with each act of compassion.