Author and pastor Philip Gulley says that in one of the first churches he pastored they met on one occasion as a church body to decide how best to help a family down on their luck, through no fault of their own. Just as consensus was building to respond graciously and creatively to their need, a member rose to complain about the money it would cost. His argument was, “the church is like any other business. We’ve got to stick to the budget.” A brave soul pointed out that the church was not a business and they had sufficient funds to meet their budget and help this family. Gulley spoke out, “Moments like these are important. Now we get to decide what kind of church we’re going be. Are we going to care more about people or more about the bottom line?” Gulley said that he hadn’t been there long enough for his words to make much of a difference, and when the vote was taken, the bottom line won the day.
I am very grateful that we here at Immanuel have decided to be a church that majors on the compassion of Christ – not doctrine or dogma, not a belief system, not conformity to established patterns – but compassion. That hasn’t been easy.
We have taken some hits in this process of being an inclusive, grace filled congregation. But I tell you sisters and brothers, this community needs a Baptist church like ours to thrive. I encourage you to be bold in talking about our church and to invite your friends to a place where the compassion of Christ takes precedence over all other matters.
Our Gospel reading today highlights the compassion Jesus had for a widow whose only son had died. Not only did this widow lose an only son, she lost her only source of income and security. Luke says that “when the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her.” Compassion was the motivating force behind Jesus’s prophetic and healing ministry.
The Hebrew word for compassion means “womb like” which has nuances of giving life, of nourishing, caring, and embracing. God is like a mother who gives birth. God has given us birth. God is the source of all life – both physical and spiritual life. As a mother loves the children of her womb so God loves each of us.
In the English etymology, passion comes from the Latin word that means to feel. The prefix com- means with. Compassion means “to feel with.” To have compassion is to feel the hurt or pain of others, and on the basis of that sense of empathy for and connection to others, to then act on their behalf for their good. Compassion isn’t really compassion unless we act.
A little girl approaches her father, who is typing a report on his computer in his study. At first he doesn’t notice her, but when she clears her throat, he looks over and says, “Honey, what do you want? She says, “Daddy, it’s my bedtime. Mommy said that if I come and stand beside you, you’d give me a hug and a kiss.” “All right.” The father reaches down and gives her a hug and a kiss. “Now, off to bed,” he says. He goes back to his computer. A minute later he looks up from his computer and his daughter is still there. He says, “Honey, I gave you a hug and kiss. What more do you want?” She says, “Daddy, you gave me a hug and kiss, but you weren’t in it.”
One can give a hug and kiss and not be in it. I can preach a sermon and do some good work for someone and not be in it. The compassion of God calls forth a passion that empowers us to be “in” the good words we speak or the good deeds we render on behalf of others.
Divine compassion greets and meets us where we are. It doesn’t wait for us to change. We do not have to travel down the Romans road first, that is, we do not have to obey a set of Bible verses or four spiritual laws before God expresses God’s compassion toward us.
In the reading from Galatians Paul speaks of his conversion by grace. Paul’s conversion was not a conversion from no faith to faith, it was not a conversion from no religion to religion. Paul’s conversion was from a religion of meritocracy grounded in rewards and punishments to a religion of forgiveness and reconciliation pervaded by grace. Paul was converted from an unhealthy, negative, legalistic kind of Judaism to a healthy, compassionate, hopeful Judaism that centered in Christ. Paul was converted from a religion of hate and condemnation, to a religion of love and inclusion.
How did this conversion happen? Was it because he believed the right things or said the right things or did the right things or joined the right group? When Paul encountered the living Christ he wasn’t doing anything right. As he tells it, he was “violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” Paul’s encounter did not come through any human source, and that includes the biblical witness as well. In fact, he thought he was obeying the scriptures by ridding his religion of the heretical Jesus followers. Paul’s conversion came, he says, by way of “revelation.” When Paul says that God set him apart before he was born and called him through grace, what he is saying is that God loved him and had compassion on him right where he was – as a persecutor and murderer of Jesus followers.
God has compassion for us just the way he had compassion on Paul – right where we are. And just as Paul was called to proclaim this gospel of grace that he experienced to to others, so we too are called to be instruments of God’s grace to others. And that means accepting and loving people right where they are.
Quaker spiritual writer and teacher Richard Foster tells about a friend who was in a shopping mall with his two-year-old son. His son lost control and started screaming. This father, instead of shaking or scolding his young son, picked him up and began singing an impromptu love song as he made his way to the car. He told his two year old child over and over how much he loved him and how special he was. By the time they reached the car, his son was completely calm. When the dad placed him in the car seat, his reached out his arms to his and said, “Sing it to me again, Daddy.”
When we are moved by the compassion of God as Jesus was, we experience a nearness and closeness to Divine Love in a way that compels us to be “in” the words we speak and the kind deeds we do for others.
Here I need to ward off a possible misunderstanding. To speak of the compassion of God does not mean that God is like milk toast, that God can be conveniently pushed off to the side and not taken seriously. The Psalmist says that God gives food to the hungry and upholds the orphan and widow. But the Psalmist also says that God executes justice for the oppressed, sets the prisoners free, and brings the wicked to ruin. God is still the judge of the world. And while God always acts compassionately, lovingly, mercifully, and graciously, he also acts justly and judges with equity and fairness.
I personally don’t believe God intervenes in judgment in this life. And people of faith have struggled with this. The prophet Habakkuk questioned the theology of God’s direct involvement in the affairs of the world when he asked God, “How is it that the unrighteous prosper while the righteous meet untimely deaths?” His life experience seemed to contradict the theology that was passed on to him. I see no evidence that God intervenes in judgment in this life. In fact, Jesus taught that God is kind and gracious to both the just and unjust alike.
I have no idea and do not pretend to know what God’s future judgment might look like and be like in the next life. I tend to think that in the life to come God will take a more direct role, but who knows. Maybe this life is one stage in many stages of our spiritual evolution and growth. Who knows? The only thing I am fairly confident of is this: Whatever divine judgment is like in the life to come, whatever form it may take, and however painful or hard or difficult it might be to bear, I am convinced that it will be designed for our redemption and transformation.
God’s judgment is not about exclusion, it’s about inclusion. It’s not about condemnation; it’s about salvation. It’s not about separation, it’s about reconciliation. It’s not about imprisonment, it’s about liberation. It’s not about retribution, it’s about redemption. I believe that with a great deal of confidence as you can tell.
In like manner, for us to be filled with the compassion of God does not mean that we are passive, milk toast pushovers either. In our Gospel reading Jesus is called a great prophet because he acted in compassion in restoring to life the widow’s only son. But Jesus was also a great prophet because he spoke truth to power, he critiqued and confronted the inequity and injustice he found in the religious and social establishment of his people. This is what got him killed.
In Marcus Borg’s groundbreaking book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, he says this, “For Jesus compassion was more than a quality of God and an individual virtue [though it was that]: it was a social paradigm, the core value for life in the community. To put it boldly; compassion for Jesus was political. He directly and repeatedly challenged the dominant sociopolitical paradigm of his social world and advocated what might be called a politics of compassion.”
When Borg says that compassion for Jesus was political he does not mean what some mean when they engage in partisan politics. Compassion will compel us to be political, but not partisan. Whether you are registered a republican or democrat is irrelevant. The issue here is not political party, the issue is justice, restorative justice. The kind of justice (as the Psalmist says) cares for strangers and upholds the orphan and the widow, the most vulnerable groups of people in that culture. It’s the kind of justice that provides food to the poor and liberates the oppressed. And if you recall this is how Jesus defines his ministry in Luke 4 in his synagogue sermon at Nazareth.
What matters are the issues, the policies, the legislation, the practices that prevail in the social, economic, and political realm in which we live. Let me give you some examples which cut across political party lines:
Massive deportations that separate and divide families, many times sending members of those families back into destitution and harms way is not compassionate.
Military drones that drop bombs in pursuit of suspected terrorists, which bombs also kill women and children in the process is not compassionate.
Cutting federal assistance to the poor because a small percentage of those who receive that assistance take advantage of the system is not compassionate.
Regardless of what you think about abortion (you may want to see Row vs. Wade overturned, you may want to keep it legal but see the number of abortions decrease), but whatever you think about it, the fact is, it is legal, and shutting down women’s health clinics that provide much needed low cost or no cost health care to disadvantaged women just because they offer the legal service of abortion is not compassionate.
It doesn’t matter what your party’s platform is or what political party you are registered with. Don’t accept it hook, line, and sinker. To adopt a line from the late William Sloan Coffin that’s like saying, “My grandmother, drunk or sober. That doesn’t get us anywhere." What matters is that we vote, work, advocate, and come down on the side of compassion. And that’s what makes compassion political.
Our God is a God of compassion. This compassion was embodied in the healings, acts of mercy, and prophetic proclamations and actions of Jesus. We are followers of Jesus are we not? We are called to be a compassionate people.
God of compassion, open our minds and hearts that we might be driven by your compassion, that the compassion of the Christ might fill us and overflow into deeds of mercy, acts of kindness, words of empathy, and in engagement in the social and political processes that might make our society more equitable and just. Move us with your compassion for your kingdom’s sake. Amen.