Proper 11, Year B
July 22, 2018
The Rev. Patricia Dickson
You may remember that several Sundays ago, we looked at a Markan sandwich. As you know, this style of writing that Mark uses starts out with the beginning of one story (the first slice of bread), then interjects another whole story (the contents of the sandwich) and then finishes the first story (the other slice of bread).
Today, however, our Episcopal lectionary has done some editing and given us a reading from Mark’s gospel that is all bread— the middle of the sandwich has been cut out altogether. We end up missing two stories: the feeding of 5,000 with two fish and five loaves, and Jesus walking on water. We are left with a single story from Mark that— at first glance— appears to pale compared with the flashy miracles that were left out. But it doesn’t. It gives us an opportunity to look at compassion.
Our gospel begins with Jesus debriefing his apostles about their ministry. Seeing that they were exhausted and hadn’t had time enough to eat, he invited them to rest at a deserted place. No sooner had their boat departed, people got wind of where they were headed and walked there so fast that a great crowd met them at the shoreline. Jesus saw them and “had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
The gospel of Matthew [15: 32] prefaces one of Jesus’ miracles with a similarly worded quote from him: “I feel compassion for the crowds because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry for they might faint on the way.” Luke’s gospel [7:11-13] introduces a miracle with, “when the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her…” John’s gospel [11:33-35] describes Jesus’ compassion for Mary after her brother Lazarus died this way: When Jesus saw her weeping,…he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved… Jesus began to weep.”
Jesus’ compassion can also be known indirectly. In John’s gospel [14:1], he says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” and in Luke [12:32], “Do not be afraid little flock.” In Matthew [11:28], Jesus tells us to “Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest… I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” In John [14:18], Jesus tells us that “he will not leave us as orphans.” And in Luke [23:34], the crucified and dying Jesus looked upon humanity with compassion and said, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”
The compilation of these quotes— pulled out of context to stand on their own— invites us to hear and feel the compassionate heart of Jesus anew. No wonder people smothered him when he walked the earth. No matter how exhausted and hungry he was, no matter how great and needy the crowd, he felt great compassion for all.
The word compassion literally means “to suffer together.” [According to Greater Good Magazine] emotion researchers at UC Berkeley define it “as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” Early research by these scientists at Berkeley suggests that there may be a biological basis for compassion. They have shown that when we feel compassion, our heart beat slows down, we secrete oxytocin (a hormone with many functions, including a role in emotional bonding) and the parts of the brain associated with caregiving, empathy, and feelings of pleasure light up. This response— the opposite of the “fight or flight” reaction when we face danger— will often result in our wanting to approach and help other people. Perhaps the wiring of our brains does give us a leg up when it comes to compassion, but to be sure, our assent to helping others is situated in our hearts, our will, and the Spirit within us.
Allowing the compassion we feel to help others can be exhilarating when those who are in trouble are within reach and we have what is needed to help. We are able to take action right there and then and make a difference. We might heal the suffering in Jesus name, make a donation to those in need, buy some pencil boxes, or keep a stranger who comes to St. Andrews for a free meal company. In all such cases, Jesus’ compassion flows through us as powerfully as it flowed through him standing at the shoreline in today’s Gospel. This is a humbling and beautiful experience that literally opens our hearts to make a bigger dwelling place for God. Herein lies the joy that God calls us to have.
There is also the kind of compassion that is hard to feel because we can’t help immediately and directly. This is where the definition of compassion as “suffering with” really comes into play. The situation of those boys stranded in that cave in Thailand elicited so much compassion around the world: “those could be my children”— “their poor parents”— “can you imagine— they’re sitting on rock, cold, starving, hopeless, and in the dark”— “they might die if a monsoon comes…” Such compassion, felt for those half a world away or for our family, friends, or others in need, affects us. We may well be hard wired for it, but truly and deeply loving our neighbors as ourselves in the face of profound suffering hurts. This is one of the costs of following Jesus and participating in God’s compassion for humanity, all creatures, and our earth. Herein lies the love God calls us to have.
But it takes time to perfect that love within us. We have training wheels on our hearts and gradually— if we choose— we allow God to transform them into God’s own. The more we love, the more joy and beauty— as well as suffering and pain— we behold.
Sometimes I ask God to break my heart with all that breaks his in the hope that I may see with God’s eyes and feel with God’s heart— at least as much as any human can. On those rare occasions when I am able to muster the courage to draw nearer to God’s own broken-hearted compassion— in the face of profound suffering— it guts me, empties me out, and if I endure through this refiner’s fire of love, it ultimately transforms my heart. You know. This is part of the path all of us here walk when confronted with suffering that brings us to our knees.
Know that it is always ok to turn the channel or put the magazine down or turn the page in the newspaper if suffering overwhelms us. Just offer a prayer, go away to rest awhile in a deserted place, and ask that God show you what if anything you are to do. And always remember— no matter what our compassionate hearts must bear— we are never alone. We are not as orphans. The Lord is gentle and humble of heart. We are his little flock and he does not want us to be afraid. He gives us rest for our heavy laden souls and feeds us so we do not faint on the journey. He will always cross over to our shoreline to meet us.
In closing, Meister Eckhart— a Dominican monk, theologian and mystic in the Middle Ages— wrote this: “You may call God love, you may call God goodness. but the best name for God is compassion.” Amen.