The Heart of Compassion

Passage: 1 Peter 3:8-18a
Date: May 28, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

Who in the community most needs the love of Jesus right now?

Maybe the first name that came to mind was your own. Maybe the first name that came to mind was of a dear friend, or of an acquaintance, or of someone whose name you don’t know, but you can tell by the ways their eyes are a bit sunken, or the way their back droops, that all is not right, that very little is right. Maybe the people that came to mind were the two young women who were being harassed on the MAX Friday night or the families of those who died defending them.

Maybe you expanded community, and gave it wider bounds, and you pictured in your head that person who sleeps under a tarp by one of the bridges, guarding their grocery cart, mumbling to themselves. Maybe you pictured someone in the news. Maybe you pictured a refugee, or a prisoner, or someone lying in a hospital bed.

The truth is that there is always, always someone in our midst who needs the love of Jesus, and since Jesus isn’t immediately here, we become Jesus’ stand-ins. We put on our superhero cape and we go out and we save the world. But we don’t do that by leaping tall buildings in a single bound, or vanquishing evil, or slaying the dragons in our midst.

We save the world – or make it a little better – or as our vision statement says, we change the world – one life at time, offering compassion when suffering shows up.

The letter of 1st Peter, written two thousand years ago, lays out the link between compassion and suffering. The letter was written to that first generation of Christians who were discovering that the world was pretty hostile toward them. The response was not to meet hostility with hostility or to repay evil with evil. The response was to acknowledge, first, how hard it was to practice their faith in such a difficult environment, and then, to show compassion to each other and the world. They would know they were Christians by their love….

While there are places in the world today where Christians do experience hostility and even violence because of their faith, I would say that you and I don’t know the kind of opposition that the early Christians, or Christians in Egypt or Indonesia, experience.

But we all know that the world, that our society, can be a pretty hostile place. We are conditioned to judge and criticize. Our children are taught to compete more than they are taught to care. Our natural reaction to is think “me first.”

Compassion, then, requires us to draw on something other than our instinct and impulse. It requires that we stop, and put on different glasses, and see a person or a situation differently. It requires that we acknowledge the presence of suffering that is the common thread of our humanity. And it requires that, frankly, we get over ourselves and our opinions and our self-righteousness.

I got a haircut this week. I’ve been seeing my stylist for six years, since we moved to Portland, and the way you do, I know about her and her family and all of that, and she knows about me and the church and Gregg and Sarah and Max. I scheduled my appointment in the late afternoon, and in order to make the appointment on time, I had to leave a meeting early, which I did but with a bit of sense of guilt.

When I arrived, a woman with wet hair was in my stylist’s chair. My stylist told me she was running about fifteen minutes late. I told her I need to be done by a certain time because I had to pick up Sarah. She said no problem. I sat in the waiting area, thumbing through People magazine, trying not to fume, but I was feeling pinched and unhappy and put upon. When my stylist was ready, I said again that I needed to be done by a certain time, and my stylist, cool and sweet as ever, told me that would be no problem. She knew I was not happy, and I did nothing to cover my miffed-ness.

She started on the haircut, making chit chat. Then she told me her husband’s cancer is back, and the entire scene changed. I had shown her no compassion, had given her no benefit of the doubt. I was focused only on me and my schedule and my stress. Her news about her husband reset my selfishness. I wish it hadn’t taken that. But suffering can lead to compassion.

The opposite is true, too – lack of suffering can lead to a lack of compassion. Two psychologists from California ran several studies to see if social class affected a person’s ability and willingness to care about someone else. The results of all the studies led them to the same conclusion: social class does affect the ability and willingness to be compassionate. They concluded that wealth and abundance give a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less a person has to rely on someone else, the less that person will care about another. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-wealth-reduces-compassion/)

But we are called by God to a different way of living. The late Henri Nouwen reminds us, “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”

Some of you are aware of a place of pain in our larger Northeast Portland community that began in the winter. Back in January, the Normandy apartment building in the Cully neighborhood was sold. Tenants received a letter informing them that the new landlord would be doubling their rent, which meant that almost every person or family who lived in those apartments would need to find a new place to live. The families there could afford their $650/month rent; $1,300/month was far beyond their means.

The neighborhood rallied, the landlord was pleaded with, but to no avail. The 16 families who were living in the Normandy apartment building would have to move. Many neighbors in Cully figured out ways to offer their additional dwelling units and other options, and to date, only two families are still seeking a place to live.

The neighborhood also created a fund to help those displaced families move and provide the first month’s rent. But because their landlord was obligated by law to help with those costs, none of them took the neighborhood funds, although those monies would have helped. They wanted to keep it for others who might go through the same ordeal. Suffering leads to compassion.

You may have heard the story about two homeless men who rushed to help in Manchester after the bomb there exploded. Chris Parker was panhandling when the bomb went off. He was knocked to the ground, but, unfazed, he went to the aid of victims. The other man, Stephen Jones, helped pull nails out of the victims’ bodies. He explained, “Just because I am homeless doesn’t mean I haven’t got a heart, or I’m not human still. I’d like to think someone would come and help me if I needed the help.” (The New York Times, May 24, 2017, “They Went to Manchester Arena as Homeless Men. They Left as Heroes.” by Dan Bilefsky)

I know I’m pretty good at thinking of ways other people can be compassionate. Maybe you share that gift with me. I think it’s pretty easy for us to look around at the world, or the neighborhood or the school or even here at church and watch people make choices that don’t appear to be based on love or care or concern. But that is not the point. The point is for us, as a faith community and as individuals, to constantly seek out ways to be compassionate.

Will we get tired of it? Yes. For most of us, our first instinct is not to be compassionate. There is an amygdala response, a biological urge to protect oneself and one’s resources. When you start practicing compassion, you realize you will never stop, because suffering is ever-present. It gets overwhelming. But perhaps it is as Mother Teresa described: “I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.” Maybe our compassion will, over time, over centuries and millennia, begin to outweigh suffering. I hope so.

After the events of Friday afternoon, I considered writing a different sermon for today; how could I talk about compassion in the face of such horrific violence and hate?

How could I not?

A friend from Wisconsin asked what our church is doing to combat Islamophobia, and I thought about our Abrahamic Thanksgiving last fall, when we joined with Muslims and Jews in the area to give thanks to God for the blessings we know. I thought, too, about the way some of us have been involved in events at the Muslim Educational Trust, and the way many of us are reaching out in friendship to our Muslim sisters and brothers. My heart goes out to those two young women on the MAX, who were doing nothing but sitting on a train.

I ache for the families of Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, who were killed, and for Micah David-Cole Fletcher, who was wounded. They stepped up, they did the right thing, they stopped hateful speech. They were courageous, and they were attacked. I don’t know why they did what they did, but I like to think it had something to do with compassion.

But I will tell you, I have no compassion for the man who perpetrated the crime, just as I have no compassion for the people who killed the Coptic Christians headed to a monastery, or the ISIS people who set off bombs at a concert, or for Neo-Nazis or White Supremacists. Maybe Jesus is calling me to grow my compassion, but I’m not there yet. I am, though, keeping that door open, allowing God to work in my heart in a way no one else can. The best I can hope for right now is to respond with compassion in ordinary situations.

In 2012 author David Foster Wallace gave a rather extraordinary commencement address at Kenyon College, a talk that spoke a lot about compassion (in a roundabout way). Here’s what he said.

“… most days… you can choose to look differently at this… dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider…. If you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

And finally—many of you know that beloved author Brian Doyle, that leprechaun of a literary genius, died yesterday after battling a brain tumor. When he was first diagnosed, he gave us words of wisdom that seem fitting today. He said, “Be tender to each other. Be more tender than you were yesterday, that’s what I would like.”

Be tender, friends. Let us be tender with each other and the world.