October 1, 2017 / COMPASSION: THE COURAGE TO SEE / Sara Wolbrecht / Matthew 15:29-38
Friends, can I let you in on a little secret? A secret that all the preachers I know also keep. (Lean in) Whatever we preach on Sunday, whatever we’re exploring, talking about, wrestling with – we’re really preaching to ourselves. We’re speaking what we need to hear. You get to listen in. Ok – that’s not the whole picture – a lot of care goes into listening to what God is saying to us as a community, the needs that are here in our people and our world, the ways we can grow.
But there is some truth to what I talk about being what I need to hear. And where we’re headed in our Chunk of Change series this month, is down a path that I know I need help with, I need to grow in. And I hear God nudging us to grow in it together as individuals and a community, as well.
Because. This month, we’re walking the path of compassion. Part of why we choose this path now is because – well, frankly, look around. What the world needs now is love, and not just love, sweet love, but actual compassion. Compassion in these conversations around NFL players taking a knee and the larger conversation of racial injustice and reconciliation, compassion in how we respond to the desperate hurricane devastation in Houston, the Virgin Islands, and especially in Puerto Rico. Compassion for our brothers and sister to the south, as they recover from the earthquake in Mexico City.
What the world needs now is compassion. And maybe, like me, you sense this is an area that you can grow in, too. You see, compassion is different than love. Different from mercy. The word compassion often feels warm and fuzzy like love, affection, mercy – but it is a word that means something of great cost. Because compassion means = “being with suffering.” (What did you think at the beginning of worship?).
What I did not know previously about compassion is the similarity between the word compass and the word compassion. And to put them next to each other, it becomes obvious. John Philip Newell in his book “The Rebirthing of God” talks about this connection. He points out how they share an etymological root. The earliest use of the word compass does not refer to the modern N-E-S-W hiking compass as we know. The word was first used to refer to this kind compass the mathematical compass, that simple two-prong device that to measures the distance between two points.
Get this: the related word, compassion is about honoring the relationship between two points – between two people or between one group and another. It is about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours, and following that connection even when that distance seems too far, or too foreign, or too painful, or too different from where I am standing, and where you are.
Isn’t that a powerful, helpful image? For October, we’re going to live into this image, one to hold alongside what the Jesus-story tells us about compassion, about being with suffering.
And although compassion is not a linear process, there is a way of compassion that is threefold. The Compassionate Way is: The Courage to See. The Courage to Feel. The Courage to Act. See, Feel, Act.
This threefold path of compassion is a way that we read Jesus embodying throughout the gospels. I snuck it in last week, actually. We listened together, last week, using the practice of Lecito Divina – if you were here last week then you heard this text. Let’s hear the first half of it again, and notice here how Jesus sees, feels, acts…
Luke 7:11-17 The Message Not long after that, Jesus went to the village Nain. His disciples were with him, along with quite a large crowd. As they approached the village gate, they met a funeral procession—a woman’s only son was being carried out for burial. And the mother was a widow. When Jesus saw her, his heart broke. He said to her, “Don’t cry.” Then he went over and touched the coffin. The pallbearers stopped. He said, “Young man, I tell you: Get up.” The dead son sat up and began talking. Jesus presented him to his mother.
When Jesus saw her, his heart broke. He used the compass, saw the connection, then felt and acted. And if you were here last week, Levi, made the comment of how, Jesus has so much compassion here. Why, yes, he does, and good segue Levi.
To see, feel, act. Compassion. We’re going to explore this threefold path, one aspect at a time beginning today, a path that takes courage to see, feel and act with those who suffer. You ready? Today, we look at the courage to see compassionately.
As we dive in, please be sure to hang on to your S hook. We are using these as a sort of prayer stone, a way of remembering that there are hooks, opportunities for growth that come at us, that get our attention. And so we’re mindful to listen for what God is saying to us in this exploration, on this path, together.
The courage to see compassionately. What does this mean? Let’s dive into another example of Jesus seeing with compassion, in Matthew telling of Jesus feeding thousands of people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish, Matthew 15:29-38. Listen through this lens of the way of compassion.
Matthew 15:29-38 (NIV)
29 Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. 30 Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. 31 The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
33 His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”
34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”
35 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36 Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people.37 They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 38 The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children.
Always so much to say about this miraculous moment and what it speaks about who God is, and who we are. But let’s just drill into Jesus’ response here. What does Jesus say as he looks out over the crowd? “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” Matthew 15:32 If we’ve read this passage before this doesn’t surprise us, of course Jesus has compassion – and of course he’s going to feed them. But step back from the familiarity of it, and notice that Jesus did not say, hey guys, I’m starving (wouldn’t that have been an appropriate response?). Guys, I’m hungry and I’m doing some important work here, it’s been three days and I’d hate to pass out – can someone go find me a sandwich? Notice that Jesus’ response, his ask was not just for himself. Which I find kind of amazing – because I know what it’s like to be hangry. Jesus connected his own hunger (because surely he was hungry) he connected it to the hunger of the crowd. He SAW them. To see them meant: making that connection between his own needs and their needs, he says, “I have compassion for the crowd.” Which translates: I am suffering with the crowd. Jesus is “being with” suffering. But first, he had to see them.
From this text, and for us considering the Courage to See with Compassion, I only want to make one big, bold, somewhat obvious point for us this morning when it comes to seeing with compassion – and see what God does with it for us. And it’s this: compassion happens in close proximity. Right? Because, if compassion means: being with suffering, you can’t have compassion unless you’re actually standing close enough to be with suffering. Close enough to see. And that ain’t easy. That’s where this word “courage” comes in. The courage to see, really means the courage to get close enough to see. You can’t see someone if you don’t move toward them.
What has happened in your own life when you have stepped toward the suffering of someone else? There are times, like Jesus here, where we will discover that compass connection with someone who in fact has the same sort of suffering that we do – you’re hungry like I’m hungry! Which really does make that connection. When we have lost a loved one and stand beside someone else in grief. When we’ve survived the break-up, and walk along with the box of tissues and box of chocolates as our friend survives there’s. When our kid is finally sleeping through the night, and we become the biggest cheerleaders to the new parents who don’t know how to survive Newborn Week. You can do it!
God does amazing work in situations like this, when people are willing to have compassion (be with suffering) and quietly say, yeah, me too.
Have you also experienced times when the suffering is not something you have experienced yourself? God also does incredible things when people step toward unfamiliar suffering. For me, a great example in my life was with Josh. The first few days of my freshman year of college – at PLU in Tacoma – my roommate and I became good buddies with Nick and Josh who were roommates on the other end of our floor. Right before Thanksgiving, Josh came out as gay. He told us, and then we were there with him, holding his hands when he called his parents to tell them – and his folks were awesomely supportive.
This was new territory for me, I had never had openly gay friends, and I also had not received much moral instruction about how I should feel about someone who was gay. I had such the rich privilege of asking Josh all the questions as I made sense of this. Wait, you’re attracted to guys? What about that guy? What about having a roommate who is a guy when you like guys? And Josh was so gracious with my obtuseness – for which I am so grateful.
But beyond my curiosity about being gay, I had a whole new way of looking at our college campus, our culture. I began to notice the kinds of jokes that were made about LGBT folks (this was almost 20 years ago). I began to notice how prevalent stories of LGBT folks as victims of hate crimes made the evening news. I noticed how Josh wasn’t welcome to the parties and events hosted by some of the Christian groups on campus. I noticed how Josh wanted to get married some day – and he’d be an amazing husband – but there was no legal way to do it. I noticed how Josh wanted to have kids someday – how would that be possible?
I remember crying. For Josh, for my other LGBT friends. One of the things that brought me to tears and pissed me off the most was when my friends who were part of Christian groups would use the language of how homosexuality is a choice. I just wanted to get up in their face and wag my finger and say: Right, so Josh is choosing a life where public affection, marriage, having children, are infinitely harder (if not impossible) and wrought with potential injury and harassment – and you think he’s choosing this?
I suffered with Josh. That compass connected us. Not only that – and here’s the thing about suffering with someone – I absolutely believe that God changed me though Josh. To use the language of our Chunk of Change sermon series we’re in, God absolutely metanoiaed me through my relationship with Josh. (Sure, it’s a real Greek word).
Josh put a face and life and name to something that could have remained a label, a category of people, a political or social issue. I thank God that I had the chance to learn compassion, to suffer with Josh and in my own small way, experience the vast suffering of our LGBT folks (not that it even comes close to the reality of their life and suffering).
When have you been close enough to someone to learn that they were far more than a label? Your own story of Josh. What lessons did you learn? What suffering did you see? We can’t see them, we can’t know their suffering, until we get close enough. And you don’t have to be as close as I was to Josh – that was pretty intimate. But we need to see a face, know a name, hear their story.
We can’t know what it means to be someone who lives with addiction – until we get close enough.
We can’t know what it means to be a parent for a child with special needs – until we get close enough.
We can’t know what it means to live with chronic pain – until we get close enough.
We can’t know why someone voted differently than us, until we get close enough.
We can’t understand why a professional football player would take a knee during the national anthem, until we get close enough.
We can’t know the suffering of the aftermath of a hurricane, until we get close enough.
How have you metanoiaed through the suffering of someone else? Here’s what we need to name: in relationship – when someone has a face and a name we know – this is where we can be changed. In close proximity.
Through that compass connection we live into a posture towards others, that we see Jesus embody in every interaction he had. Where we see life as infinitely precious. We see “our life” as just as precious as theirs. The suffering over there is my suffering. It becomes like ours, it becomes ours. To be with it. To suffer with. To see ourselves in the person, the crowd, the community, the country over there. That’s what the compassion connection does in us.
So much more to say about this – and more we will say in the month to come. But here is where we begin.
To close, I want to suggest three responses. I know, I know, I’m being ambitious. But it’s good stuff. The first response, I need to set it up. On Wednesday after the Day Center closed, I had a beer and conversation with Natalia, who is the Program Director of the Day Center. Which was so great. She is just a fantastic human being and I enjoyed getting to know her better. But one of the questions I asked her was: “So, is the relationship Salt House has with New Bethlehem what you thought it would be, and more importantly – is it what you hope it could be?” And in her answer the most telling thing she said was: “I just wish folks from Salt House would come by.” And I said, “Yeah, me, too.” And she clarified, not just drop in unannounced, but that we would volunteer, spend time with the clients at the day center.
Here’s the thing: you are here at Salt House, which means you are already a part of the New Bethlehem Day Center. We share a home with them. And you may be, like me, with little expertise, and little exposure and experience with folks experiencing homelessness. But my friends, we are given this incredible chance to be in close proximity to families experiencing homelessness. To be with their suffering. To let ourselves be changed. And I don’t want us to miss that chance.
The first response I offer you to seeing with compassion, is to ask how might you step closer to the clients who come to the New Bethlehem Day Center here in our basement?
Also this week, on Monday, we hosted a conversation on homelessness, a chance for the Kirkland community to come and hear how things are going, to hear the facts about homelessness on the Eastside, and understand why we need to build a permanent shelter to serve single women and families experiencing homelessness. And why we at Salt House have said yes to selling land to meet that desperate need. We heard from Catholic Community Services, the City of Kirkland, the Sophia Way, the architect, Kim – there were about 40 people here, and it really was a big love-fest. Folks experiencing homelessness currently on the Eastside have a piecemeal approach, where they have to be in one location to sleep, and another to eat, and another for case management & move toward housing and jobs. What we’re a part of with all these partners will completely change that reality for such good. It will all be here.
Dan, as we wrapped up turned to me and said, “We’re kind of a big deal. I hate to say it like that, but we’re a part of a really big deal.” And he’s right. The collaboration that is happening between faith organizations and the city government, and the impact it will have – this is what the Kingdom of God looks like! Housing folks experiencing homelessness.
What might it look like for you to take a step closer to all of this? Into the day center? Actually, physically showing up in the space, or support it in another way? How might God work change in you, grow compassion in you, to see our brothers and sisters who are experiencing homelessness? I hear ya – I’m busy too. School just started, and it’s soccer season now. I have found it hard to make time for that, and underneath I know I have my own insecurities, vulnerabilities about showing up. But you guys, like Dan said – this is kind of a big deal, we’re already a part of it – so what might it look like to move into closer proximity?
Here’s one way: there’s a link on the bottom of your insert, on the back. It will take you to the online sign-ups for the day center. Everyday an individual or a group brings dinner. Most days, there’s also a snack needed – another volunteer brings the snack. Other supplies and necessities are listed, too, that you can sign up for. Grab your family, grab a few folks from here – and sign up. You don’t need to attend a volunteer training to bring a meal. And then you get to stay and eat with folks, too.
You can also go through the volunteer training (many of us have) and be there for a longer window of time – a few hours on a day of your choice, helping with what’s needed. Heather and I spent an hour there a few Sundays a go, and we just sat coloring with some of the kids. It was lovely. The day center has been short staffed in all these areas since school started, and I would love for them to have the problem of being overstaffed with volunteers. Right? You can also find links to all of this through the Salt House App – which you can download for free if you haven’t already.
That’s the first response I invite you to consider. Close proximity, my friends, in this big deal that God is up to in our midst.
Second and third responses for today are a little less challenging in most ways, and involve you writing. The second response is to take the pen and paper you received when you came today and to let this be the space where you write a prayer. A word or short phrase that is what you pray for for yourself – what is it that you carry on your heart today, the question you wonder about, the sadness you shoulder, the joy you give thanks for. Growing in compassion, we also need to see our own suffering, move toward it and not be afraid to name it, to talk to God about it, to let it be prayed for in community. Again, it takes courage. Courage to see even our own suffering. As we sing in few moments, you’ll have a chance to write, please write clearly as we will gather up those prayers and then pray them aloud. As with all things at Salt House, you do not have to write anything if you’re not comfortable doing so – you can even pass in a blank paper.
The third and final response is to ask the question named in our video, that we keep coming back to at Salt House: What is God saying to me? My friends, how is God hooking you, getting your attention in what we’re talking about here, or perhaps something else from your life, your week, that you want to name as significant, as a Kairos moment. Name one thing. And write it down on one of the painted shapes we have on the tables. Every Sunday for this entire Chunk of Change series, every Sunday, we’re taking our S hook, writing down Kairos, (what God is saying to us) and hanging them up, making this bog ol’ wall of what God is saying to us. It’s deeply moving to see what’s already showing up there. So that’s your third and final response.
So now, as the band comes back up, we become connected to our breath again. I invite you to close your eyes and feel your body in your seat, your feet rooted to this floor. …Near the end of the song we’ll come by the ends of the rows to collect your prayers. We now make room in ourselves to listen for God, to see with compassion, and to pray…