October 15, 2017 / COMPASSION: THE COURAGE TO ACT / Sara Wolbrecht / Luke 10:30-37
Friends, we began this morning with our welcome question reflecting on when we have seen compassionate action this week – because acting with compassion is exactly where we’re headed today.
Because. This fall we are embracing the season of much change happening around us in our Chunk of Change sermon series. Exploring how we listen for God nudging us not only though the external changes around us, over those thresholds we stand at, but exploring, too, how God steadily invites us to BE changed. Mind, heart, soul change. That’s why we keep passing out those S hooks. Listening for those hooks.
And we’ve set aside October as a month where our focus is on being changed into people with greater capacity for compassion.
We began two weeks ago by defining compassion as what? = “being with suffering.” Or “to suffer with.” And what is the image, the physical object we named as capturing this definition? A compass. (pic) The mathematical compass shares the same etymological root as compassion. The word, compassion, then, like a compass, is about honoring the relationship between two points – between two people or between one group and another. For October, we’re living into this image, a compass connection and the path of compassion the Jesus-story invites us into, a path that has three movements: The Compassionate Way is: The Courage to See. The Courage to Feel. The Courage to Act. See, Feel, Act.
We’ve walked through seeing with compassion, naming how if we’re going to have courage to suffer with, we have to get close enough to actually see – the person, the group, the suffering. We named how: Compassion happens in close proximity. Seeing that compass connection, getting close enough to honor the relationship between me and you.
Then last week we walked through feeling with compassion. The Greek word that is used in the gospels to describe Jesus’ emotions when he feels compassion, the Greek word for compassion, is splagchna. And splagchna means what? Guts! Intestines. In that culture at that time, emotions were believed to be housed in our guts. So when Jesus feels compassion, the Greek word is feeling in his guts. And so it is for us to do our own splagchna-ing – though in our vernacular we talk about feeling it in our hearts, being broken hearted with others – and we explored the barriers that come up for us in feeling compassion.
And now today, we turn to action. Acting with compassion. You ready? A little less talk and a lot more action…For our study of compassionate action, we turn to one of the most well-known stories in our Christian tradition – Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan.
To set the scene…Jesus is asked by a religion scholar the question of: “And just how would you define ‘neighbor’?” And this is the parable Jesus says in response. Remember, parables are complicated, they have many layers, and Jesus tosses them out as hooks to the listener, leaving it up to them to decide if they will dig in to find out more. And this we listen to – listening for hooks, noticing the compassionate way of: see, feel, act.
30-32 Jesus answered by telling a story. “There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. On the way he was attacked by robbers. They took his clothes, beat him up, and went off leaving him half-dead. Luckily, a priest was on his way down the same road, but when he saw him he angled across to the other side. Then a Levite religious man showed up; he also avoided the injured man.
33-35 “A Samaritan traveling the road came on him. When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him. He gave him first aid, disinfecting and bandaging his wounds. Then he lifted him onto his donkey, led him to an inn, and made him comfortable. In the morning he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take good care of him. If it costs any more, put it on my bill—I’ll pay you on my way back.’
36 “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?”
37 “The one who treated him kindly,” the religion scholar responded.
Jesus said, “Go and do the same.”
The Good Samaritan not only sees that an innocent traveler has been robbed and beaten up, he feels for him, and he acts. It says: “When he saw the man’s condition, his heart went out to him.” And he went on to bandage him, and take him to an inn. (Luke 10:34). There were two others on the same road who saw the man who had been robbed, but they “angled across to the other side…and avoided him.” First, there was a priest. Then there was a respectable leader of the people. They saw the injured traveler. They may have even felt deeply or felt sorry for him. The problem was that they did not act.
John Mayer has a song, it’s called, Love is Verb. “Love ain’t a thing. Love is a verb.” And it’s true – thanks, John Mayer. And compassion is a verb. For us to talk about compassion, which we’ve defined as being with suffering or to suffer with – we can’t skip over seeing or feeling but we can’t stop there, either. Compassion is a verb. Not just a state of mind or heart. Compassion leads us to action.
But let’s be honest that it ain’t always easy to let compassion be a verb, to take action in response to the suffering we see around us. As has become our practice the past two weeks, we’ve looked at why it’s hard, the barriers that get in the way – of seeing with compassion of feeling, and today – let’s dig into some of WHY it is hard to act compassionately – and how we can reframe it, to see it with fresh eyes that ground us in the Jesus-story of compassion. Ready?
First, let’s name, that the bottom line challenge when it comes to compassionate action is that compassionate action is costly. We see that in the parable of the Good Samaritan, yes? In the parable – the Samaritan. What did his compassion cost him? At least 2 silver coins (two days’ wages) – maybe more if it took him longer to get back or for the man to recover. Also: it cost him time. To stop on the road – his estimated time of arrival at his destination just got bumped significantly later. Then, time to clean and bandage his wounds. Time to take him to an inn and make arrangements. And the time to come back later to check on the injured man and settle his bill.
Compassion is costly. It will deplete our resources every time. Whether it’s time, money, and/or our emotional resources. Is this not why we so often – before we even get to action, we shut down feelings of compassion and, even before that, we refuse to see with compassion? Because we know if we walk this path of compassion, one flows naturally into the other. If we allow ourselves to see someone and their suffering, well we know what’s coming next – we’re going to feel! And if we open to the river of compassionate feeling, we will more likely act. But the call to action is usually the sticking point. Because action is costly.
Not to mention – another reason why we get stuck moving forward with action, is that when we see the suffering around us – what do we often feel in light of all of it? Overwhelmed. Overwhelming. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it, as well as the messy complexity of it.
It makes me think of the time when I was a kid – maybe 10 years old, and I was in our kitchen with my dad. We were getting things ready for dinner as my mom finished teaching piano lessons for the day, my brothers I think we still downstairs. And we’re getting things out to have hot dogs for dinner. And in the shuffle of things, the giant, brand new plastic bottle of Heinz ketchup got knocked off the kitchen counter and fell to the floor.
Now, things falling to the floor in the kitchen can be no big deal most of the time – but not this time. The bottle – I don’t understand the physics behind it – but the bottle completely split open and ketchup just exploded over everything. My dad and me – ketchup. The floor, obviously – ketchup. The ceiling – ketchup. The front of the cabinets, refrigerator, oven – ketchup. The underside of the counters – ketchup. The top sides of the counters – I don’t understand how – ketchup. And my dad and I just froze, because – we were suddenly standing in a crime scene, right? And then I think we just started laughing.
But I want you to picture this kitchen – in which most of the surfaces are usually white, mind you – and to be there in that moment – the ketchup is like the suffering we see around us. That’s how it can feel sometimes, right? It’s overwhelming because there’s such chaos and messiness everywhere (so much of which makes no sense) – so much suffering we see. After my dad and I had a good chuckle, we just kind of looked at each other, with the holy crap – where do we even begin to clean this up?
That’s how we feel with compassionate action – we feel paralyzed by the suffering we see and feel for. Where do we begin? How can this possibly be cleaned up? Overwhelmed.
Into this, let me introduce you to, if you do not know her already, Aung San Suu Kyi (pic), winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, she is the leader of the nonviolent movement for democracy in Burma. Since 1962 you may know, that Burma has been governed by one of the most brutally repressive military regimes in the world. Aung San Suu Kyi, often just referred to with affection by the Burmese people as Lady Suu, has been described as Burma’s Ghandi. For 25 years she was on house arrest as a political prisoner, but became Myanmar's civilian leader since winning elections in 2015. She has made headlines and received much criticism in recent months as she’s tried to navigate the tenuous line of compassion as nearly half a million Muslims have fled Myanmar.
Like my parent’s kitchen, when we find ourselves paralyzed by the sheer amount of mess and chaos within us and between us, the costliness and complexity of not knowing how to act compassionately, Lady Suu’s expert advice, which is forged through decades worth of tenuous compassionate response, is this: “Do something. Just start somewhere.” - Aung San Suu Kyi “Don’t just stand there despairing. Do something.” (Suu Kyi Voice of Hope, 94). How’s that for a wise perspective? The courage to feel, the courage to see, and yes, my friends, it takes courage to take in the messiness of suffering in our lives, our neighborhoods, our schools, our political system, our world – it takes courage to roll up our sleeves and do something.
Especially knowing that it will cost us. And that we may never get the whole mess cleaned up. Still, what is Lady Suu’s advice? Do something. Which absolutely echoes Jesus’ parable – the Good Samaritan, who chose not to pass by on the other side, but to see, feel AND act with compassion. It takes courage. And Jesus tells this story in response to the question of what matters most in how we live – which is to love our neighbor – and this is what love looks like. Love is a verb. Start somewhere.
And here’s the thing: Lady Suu explains how if we just start somewhere in our response of compassionate action, before we know it we find that we are beginning to make inroads into tidying up the mess. Just start somewhere. We may not know exactly how our action is going to play out. Lady Suu says, “Just continue…Later on the fruits of what you do will become apparent on their own.”
And here is the curious, startling, amazing mystery behind doing something, taking action: it not only costs us, but get this, it also fuels us. What?? How does that work?
Lady Suu talks about how those who are doing something to improve the world are the ones who have hope for it. Those who do something are the ones who actually have hope. This is it: there is a direct relationship between hope and action. Hope, of course, is the very thing that can lead to action in the first place. Right? But then action, in turn, strengthens hope. When we act with compassion, even the simplest of compassionate deeds, it makes a difference. And we recognize that the unjust wrongs that create suffering in our world are not an indelible feature of reality. They can be changed. The mess can change.
So yes. Last week we talked about compassion fatigue – how we can get burned out from feeling all the suffering we see. This week we name how the mess can be costly and overwhelming and we don’t know what to do. But the other side of it, is that doing something, actually combats the despair and exhaustion we may feel. Doing something is the very thing that builds and fuels hope and resilience in us and in the systems we’re trying to influence. Courage begets courage. Action begets action. Hope fuels more action and courage and hope.
When I hear this from Lady Suu – and when I see this in the life of Jesus – it’s like a huge AHA – that this is an invitation into changing our mindset. To change how we see those moments when we’re standing at the threshold of compassionate action. When we stand in the ketchup covered kitchen. What can we do? Will we do something? The shift is to see the step that we take across that threshold to be one that not only will cost us, but will fuel us.
And not only will it fuel us. Jesus is so clear, here where he says “Go, and do the same” and the countless other time throughout his ministry, that this invitation into living compassionately, is not just a program to help people who need it – though it absolutely accomplishes that. It isn’t just about the receivers of compassion. But Jesus is also interested in the doers of compassion, those who live compassionately, that this is a path into living the best kind of life possible. A costly life, yes, but a life lived beyond ourselves and the kind of life that moves us into the full, abundant life Jesus describes as being possible.
Do you hear in this the invitation to BE changed? To change our understanding of compassion – though it takes courage, to see how compassion can lead us into action that fuels hope in us and our world, even in the midst of great suffering? How desperately this shift is needed in our world – I know I need it.
Alongside all of this, I want us to hold an image – other than ketchup – for what we’re describing here. A painting by Scott Erickson, that he posted on Instagram a few weeks ago, right as we began this series. For folks who were here at Salt House during Lent, this past spring – we read a book together on Prayer. And Scott was the artist, whose artwork we got to see and engage with devotionally every day of Lent. He’s is an artist and speaker based out of Portland. He created the art for the book, then he was here for a special event with the coauthor, Justin McRoberts, for a special evening last spring.
Here’s another piece for us to hold alongside compassion. (Scott’s painting) Notice it. How do you respond to it?
Hold whatever is coming up for you, and hear what Scott wrote about it: (add to pic if possible, otherwise leave text off screen) “It's taken me half my life to understand that true transformation is connected to how we CHOOSE to see the world around us. That this choice is where the Divine is hiding out... waiting patiently to be found in the places we least expect...May I have eyes to see.”
This picture, when I saw it, took my breath away because it visually captures how seeing with compassion can actually stir and ignite our heart, our splagchna. That somehow, we need to connect, plug into that compass connection in order to become fully alive, fully ourselves, fully engaged. I love how Scott names it as a choice – for it truly is – the choice to see with compassion, that can fuel our hearts into the courage to feel and the courage to act – that as we are ignited by the fruits of our action, that hope is ignited, too.
Doesn’t that just get ya? Friends. In light of all of this, here is my invitation and challenge for us for this week, as a way to walk this path and build our compassion muscles through the practice of compassion together. I invite you to close your eyes if that’s helpful, or to let this image be something to focus on, as you reflect and listen.
Please tap into the people and places and communities you have felt compassion for this week, or recently. Pick one. One person, situation, place, relationship – that has stirred you. Where there is suffering. Where you want to feel hope and possibility. Close to you, on the other side of the world. A single individual. Or a country. Your own child or partner, or someone you’ve never met. Pro tip: from Houston, to Puerto Rico, to Mexico City, to Syria, to Las Vegas, to the fires of California, to our own families, to the New Bethlehem Day Center serving families experiencing homelessness in our basement – there are ample places where suffering is happening. Pick one. Two or three if you’re feeling ambitious. But start with one.
You’re standing in the ketchup-splattered kitchen, there is suffering and the questions is, what is the small first step (or next step) you can take to do something? To act with compassion this week. An intentional movement of being with suffering, in a relationship or situation that has stirred up your splangchna. To call our representatives. To donate money or time in a specific way. To call, write, make a meal for someone. To offer free childcare, or give someone a ride, or lend them your car. To show up at the New Bethlehem Day Center or help with the pumpkin decorating next week we’re hosting for our kids and the kids of the New Bethlehem Day Center. To show up with more patience and attention with your child or your friend who needs that kind of care right now. Or to act in response to Puerto Rico, or the fires in California, or our LGBT and immigrant friends whose rights are dwindling in light of our current administration.
I know it can feel like a big mess. And we want to fix it, but the first step is to just start by doing something. For an actual person or situation. And yes, it will cost you – at the very least it will cost you time this week. And also at the very least, it will fuel you for more, and plug you into this life that Jesus invites us to embody when he says, “Go, and do the same.”
And I invite you during Communion or after worship, to visit our Kairos wall over there and write it down – the person or situation that is stirring you – for what we’re experiencing here is Kairos, an invitation from God, in which we’re stopping to ask: God, what are you saying, and then: what are we going to do about it? Offer it up on our wall as you’re able. Write down your one thing on the heart. This is Kairos.
And after we sing in a moment, we will also open up space to pray for these situations, too.
Lady Suu, whenever interviews try to inflate her significance, or focus solely on her work for change, her response is to emphasize that no single one of us is all important. But each one of us, she says, is essential. In the movement of change in our world, and the metanoia change within each of us. Each of us is essential, on this path and work of compassion. Do we believe this? We may not all be called onto the world stage of political action. But each one of us has a critical role to play in our families, our personal relationships, our communities. No one else can play that role of compassion for you. Do we know this, that each one of us is essential?
Let’s pray – God. What a gift that we are a work in progress. That you relentlessly invite us into change. Including heart change, where we see ourselves as essential to offering your love and compassion to our hurting world. In these next few moments, meet us as we sing, as we have a moment to listen, that we may be grounded in this love you give us, connected to who you’ve made us to be, and grateful that we walk this path of compassion together. Form us to be people moved to action and fueled by hope and compassion…