Sermon on Isaiah 49:14-16a and Luke 6:32-36 for Christmas +1 A, January 1, 2017
But Zion said, “The Lord has forsaken me,
my Lord has forgotten me.”
Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands;
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.
I want to begin the year at the beginning; with what is most basic, most fundamental, most important. Of course, for us, that means beginning with Jesus.
So of all the things Jesus said, what is the most basic; the root from which everything grows? Of course it is the love command. “Love one another”, Jesus said. So what does love look like in practice? Love looks like compassion. So today I want us to focus on this central, basic call to us as followers of Jesus. Jesus said:
“Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”
If you do not remember hearing these words from Jesus, perhaps it is because you have heard them this way:
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
“Mercy” is a possible translation, but not the best. Mercy, in contemporary usage, implies that someone has done something wrong to us, and that we could be justified in punishing them for it, but we decide not to, out of mercy. But that meaning heads us down the wrong path.
The way Jesus used the word comes out of his Jewish context. In that context, “compassion” is much better. The Hebrew word comes from the word for a mother’s womb. It comes from that universal experience of the feeling a mother has for the child she will soon deliver. As it moves, as she feels the kicks, as she caresses her tummy and imagines the new life to come, the feeling she feels is compassion.
In the readings, we heard Isaiah, the poet and prophet, imagining God like a new mother, looking down at her nursing baby, feeling compassion. Isaiah asks a rhetorical question that everyone on earth knows the answer to:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child,
or show no compassion for the child of her womb?”
How could she? No, she could not forget. She could not but feel compassion – there is that word – she feels “womb-ish” for her child, if we can say it that awkwardly literal way. And God, pictured as feminine, a mother, in fact a nursing mother, feels the same way towards us.
How should we be? Jesus says, be as a nursing mother is to her child; be womb-ish; be compassionate.
For followers of Jesus, compassion is to be the basic, first impulse. The first question in our minds, before we let our tongues speak a word is: “Is this the most compassionate way to say this?” “Is this reply compassionate?”
When someone has caused us suffering, by their words or their actions, and when causing them suffering in turn would feel so good, so justified, so self-protecting, we hear the voice of conscience asking, “Will causing more suffering ever help end the cycle of suffering between us? Instead, how can I respond with compassionate speech?” I recommend Tich Nhat Hahnh’s book Anger which goes into this practice in helpful detail.
Mindfulness and Compassion
Compassion is completely non-controversial. All the world’s religions teach it. It is the basis of the Golden Rule – do to others as you would have them do to you. How do you want to be treated? With compassion, of course.
But here is a huge problem here. We cannot just simply decide to become compassionate. It will not help at all simply to make a new year’s resolution to become more compassionate. Just because Jesus commanded us to be compassionate does not mean that we can flick a switch and obey.
Compassion turns out to be rather difficult. Most of our responses, our replies to people when they speak, or our reactions when they act, seem totally automatic and instantaneous to us. They feel authentic. In fact, our years of automatic and instant reactions builds up a stockpile of evidence in our minds that, “I’m just like that; it’s who I am.” It seems normal to shoot back in kind, tit for tat.
So, the first step in practicing the kind of compassion that Jesus calls us to must begin with becoming self-aware, in the moment, in that instant before we speak, in that immediate flash of emotion. In other words, becoming mindful; mindfully aware that we are in a conversation, and that we have the ability to choose our replies and our responses to the emotions we feel.
Mindful awareness comes from mindful practices, especially contemplative prayer, or meditation. That is why people who practice meditation find their compassion increasing. We cannot just decide to become compassionate, but starting or renewing a daily practice of contemplative prayer, or meditation, is something we can decide to do. In fact, it would be a wonderful new year’s resolution to set aside time for meditation each day, or a mindful walking practice.
So far, we have only considered compassionate speech, but the call to be compassionate is comprehensive. Compassion defines our attitudes towards everything. It is our starting point. Compassion is how we handle our personal relationships.
Compassion is also how we live our public lives.
How are we to think about the poor? With compassion.
How are we to think about gay and transgendered people? With compassion.
The same is true about our treatment of the planet itself and to animals.
How are we to think about Muslims? With compassion.
Compassion does not mean being in denial or not facing reality. Of course there are bad people who do terrible things, and some of them use religion to justify their evil. From the Crusaders of the middle ages to the Ku Klux Klan in America, twisted versions of Christianity have been used for evil purposes and have caused great suffering. Similarly, some people use twisted versions of Islam today. We get that.
But being compassionate means we refuse to scapegoat all Muslims for the evil practiced by some, any more than we would condemn Christianity for the Klan.
In fact the call to compassion requires us to educate ourselves. We see beyond simplistic binary categories that so often frame public debates, as if the world were not complex and as if humans were not complex.
We pay attention to science – real scientists, not the ones hired by vested interests to confuse people, the way big tobacco companies hired people to deny the health risks associated with smoking – and the same happens with climate change skeptics as well.
Rather we try to gather real facts from real researchers who do not have vested interests in the outcomes, and we learn about the causes of behavior and the causes of conditions. Compassion leads us to ask “Why?” questions.
Compassion asks why are there people sleeping on our streets?
Why there are so many murders in Chicago?
Why are there so many shooting deaths in our country?
Why are “more African Americans under correctional control in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the civil war began,” according to Ohio State University law professor Michelle Alexander?.
Compassion does not just mean having a compassionate opinion or about a compassionate feeling, or clicking “like” on a web post with a great slogan (slacktivism). Compassion leads to active involvement.
Jesus’ most famous parable, the Good Samaritan began with a question – Who is my neighbor? In this story about two people who walked away from suffering, and one who became involved, the question Jesus asked was “Who was a neighbor to him?”. The answer is “the one who showed him compassion” by stopping and helping. Compassion is action.
Jesus gave a reason for insisting on compassion. He said it was because of God. We are to imitate God.
“Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.”
Jesus’ understanding of God as compassionate could have been different. There are many different pictures of God in the Hebrew Bible. God is sometimes pictured as a warrior, commanding slaughter. God is a punisher, using a massive flood, plagues, even fire and brimstone from heaven.
But God is also like a woman nursing an infant in her arms. God is a mother bird spreading protective wings over her brood. God is a shepherd, leading the sheep to green pastures and quiet waters, staying with them in the valley of the shadow of death.
It is clear that Jesus rejected one way of viewing God, the God of wrath, and embraced the other; the God of compassion.
That is the God Jesus believed in. That is the God Jesus felt free to address as “abba” or daddy. That is the God of compassion. That is the God we believe in and on whose compassion we rely every day of our lives.
Here we are now in 2017, within one year of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The great quest of the reformers like John Calvin and Martin Luther was to get back to the original sources of our faith. They said, “ad fontes” – back to the fountain. As we anticipate that anniversary, let that be our quest as well.
Our source, the fountainhead of our faith is Jesus. The Jesus we seek to follow is the Jesus before there were cathedrals, before there were church councils and before there were creeds. The historical Jesus never required anyone to say what they believed or to believe something different.
Instead, what Jesus did require was that his followers practice compassion. How different 2,000 years of church history would have been if compassion had been the focus of teaching, preaching, and organized action, instead of building cathedrals, holding councils and requiring assent to creeds.
The church started that way. As I said last week, the first organized action the early church took, according to the book of Acts, was a bread ministry to poor widows. That is compassion in action.
So on this first day of 2017, let this be our cry: “ad fontes” Back to our Source. Let us begin the new year asking ourselves: What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be the church?
It means that we are people of spiritual practices that enable and increase our capacity for compassion. It means we are people of mindfulness. It means that we commit ourselves to be people of intelligent, informed, and active compassion in every part of our lives, both private and public.